/ Language: English / Genre:sf,

Interface

Neal Stephenson


Neal Stephenson and Frederick George

Interface

To Wilbur

PART 1. The State of the Union

1

William Anthony Cozzano's office was a scandal. So it was whispered in the high councils of the Illinois Historical Society. For over a century, under dozens of governors, it had looked the same. Then Cozzano had come along and moved all the antique furniture into storage (Abraham Lincoln was the greatest man in history, Cozzano said, but his desk was a piece of junk, and Stephen Douglas's side chair was no prize either). Cozzano had dared to move electronics into the frescoed vault of the governor's office - a thirty-six-inch Trinitron with picture-in-picture so that he could watch C-SPAN and football at the same time! And his chair was no antique, but a high-tech thing with as many adjustable features as the human body had bones. He had suffered enough abuse, he claimed, in Vietnam and on the frozen turf of Soldier Field and didn't deserve to be mangled by some antique chair day in and day out, Illinois Historical Society be damned. That chair was everything Cozzano wasn't: fat with padding and glossy with petal-soft leather where Cozzano was lean and craggy and weathered, a man who had waited his whole life to look the way he did now, as if carved from a block of white oak with a few quick strokes of an adze.

Cozzano was sitting in the chair one night in January, holding a fountain pen as big as an uncooked hot dog in his left hand. Cozzano returned to his home in the small town of Tuscola every weekend to mow the lawn, rake leaves, or shovel snow, so calluses made a dry rasping sound as his writing hand slid across the paper.

The fountain pen looked expensive and had been given to him by someone terribly important a long time ago; Cozzano had forgotten whom. He late wife, Christina, used to keep track of who had given him what and send out little notes, Christmas cards, and so on, but since her death, all of these social niceties had gone straight to hell, and most people forgave him for it. Cozzano found that the pen's bulk fit his hand nicely, his fingers wrapped around the barrel without having to pinch it like a cheap ballpoint, and the ink flowed effortlessly on to the paper, nib scrawling and calluses rasping, as he signed the endless stream of bills, proclamations, resolutions, letters, and commendations that flowed across his desk like blood cells streaming in single file through the capillaries of the lung - the stately procession that sustained the life of the body politic.

His office was on the second floor of the east wing, directly above the capitol's main entrance, overlooking a broad lawn decorated with a statue of Lincoln delivering his farewell address to Springfield. The room had only two windows - tall narrow north-facing ones that were blocked even from the late afternoon sun by the north wing and the soaring capitol dome. Cozzano called it the "arctic circle" - the only part of Illinois that was in darkness for six months out of the year. This was a somewhat obscure and technical joke, especially in these days of endemic geographic ignorance, but people laughed at it anyway because he was the Governor. He kept his desk lamp going all day, but as the sky had darkened and as he worked into the night, he had not bothered to turn on the over­head fixtures, and he now sat in a pool of illumination in the middle of the dark office. Around the edges of the room, innumerable pieces of decoration reflected the light back at him.

Each governor decorated the office in his own way. Only a few things were immutable: the preposterous fresco on the ceiling, the massive doors with brass lions' heads mounted in their centers. His predecessor had gone in for a spare, classical nineteenth-century look, filling the place up with antiques that had belonged to Lincoln and Douglas. This impressed visitors and looked nice for the tour groups who came by every hour to launch flashcube barrages over the velvet rope. Cozzano had banned the tour groups, slamming the doors in their faces so that all they could see was the brass lions, and turned the office into a cluttered Cozzano family museum.

It had started on the day of his first inauguration, with a small photo of his late wife, Christina, placed on the corner of his historically inaccurate desk. Naturally, photos of his children, Mary Catherine and James, came next. But there was no point in stopping with the immediate family, and so Cozzano had brought in several boxes containing pictures of patriarchs and matriarchs going back several generations. He wanted pictures of his friends, too, and of their families, and he also needed various pieces of memorabilia, some of which were chosen for sentimental reasons, some for purely political ones. By the time Cozzano was finished decorating his office, it was almost filled with clutter, smelling salts had to be brought in for the Historical Society, and, as he sat down for the first time in his big leather chair, he could trace the entire genealogy and economic development of the Cozzano clan, and of twentieth-century Illinois, which amounted to the same thing.

There was an old aerial photograph of Tuscola as seen from its own water tower in the 1930s. It was a town of a few thousand people, about half an hour south of the academic metropolis of Champaign-Urbana and a couple of hours south of Chicago. Even in this photo it was possible to see gaudy vaults in the town cemetery, and Duesenbergs cruising the streets. Tuscola was, for a farm town, bizarrely prosperous.

In an oval frame of black walnut was a hand-tinted photograph of his great-grandfather and namesake Guillermo Cozzano who had come to Illinois from Genoa in 1897. In typically contrary Cozzano fashion he had bypassed the large Italian communities on the East Coast and found work in a coal mine about thirty miles southwest of Tuscola, where soil and coal were the same color. He and his son Guiseppe had gone into the farming business, snapping up one of the last available parcels of high-quality land. In 1912, Guiseppe and his wife had their first child, Giovanni (John) Cozzano, followed three and five years later by Thomas and Peter. All of these events were recorded in photographs, which Cozzano would be more than happy to explain to visitors if they made the mistake of expressing curiosity, even allowing their eyes to stray in that direction. Most of the photos featured buildings, babies, or weddings.

John Cozzano (photo) lost his mother to influenza at the age of six and, from that point onward, lived his life as if he had been shot from a cannon. During his high-school years in the vigorous 1920s he held down a part-time job at the local grain elevator (photo). By the time economic disaster struck in the 1930s he had worked his way up into the management of that business. With one foot in his father's farm and the other in the grain elevator, John was able to get the family through the Depression in one piece.

In 1933, John fell in love with Francesca Domenici, a young Chicago woman. As evidence of his fitness to be a husband, he decided to buy an enormous stucco Craftsman house on a tree-lined brick street on the edge of Tuscola (photo). Even by the standards of Tuscola, which had an inordinate number of large and magnificent houses, it was a beaut: three stories, six bedrooms, with a full basement and a garage the size of a barn. All of the woodwork was black walnut, thick as railroad ties. He was going to buy the place for five hundred dollars from a railway company man who had gone bankrupt. At this time, John had only three hundred dollars in the bank, and so he was forced to borrow the remaining two hundred.

This quest eventually led him to Chicago, and to the doorstep of Sam Meyer (photo), formerly Shmuel Meierowitz. Sam Meyer operated a number of coexisting businesses out of a single storefront on Maxwell Street, on Chicago's near west side (photo). One thing he did was lend money. Sam's son was named David; he was a lawyer.

Every Italian person John Cozzano had ever spoken to for more than about ten minutes had spontaneously warned him of the danger of borrowing money from Jews. He had accepted these warnings at face value until he overheard Anglo-Saxons in Tuscola warning each other, in exactly the same terms, of the dangers of borrowing money from Italians. John borrowed the money and bought the house. As soon as he had cleaned all the junk out of the basement and taken care of a dire flea infestation, he went back up to Chicago and proposed to Francesca.

He bought a ring from Sam Meyer on credit and they were married in Chicago in June 1934. After a short honeymoon at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island (photo), they moved into the big house in Tuscola. Within eleven months, John had repaid all of his debts to Sam Meyer, and he discovered that, contrary to legend, it was possible to carry on a financial transaction with a Jew without forfeiting your shirt, or your immortal soul.

This planted a seed in his mind; he might be able to buy the grain elevator on credit and get rid of the feeble old man and the incompetent drunk whom he had been working for. John spent the rest of the 1930s buying the elevator and then trying to develop it into something bigger: a factory to convert corn into other things. Francesca spent the same time trying to get pregnant. She had four miscarriages but kept trying anyway.

As of the beginning of 1942, when America entered the war, John Cozzano, Mr. Domenici, Sam Meyer, and David Meyer were partners in Corn Belt Agricultural Processors (CBAP), successful corn syrup production facility in Tuscola, Illinois (photo). John and Francesca were the parents of a brand-new baby boy, William A. Cozzano (photo), who by that time was the fourth grandchild of Guiseppe. He was, however, the first grandson. Everyone who laid eyes on the new baby predicted that he would one day be President of the United States.

Thomas joined the army, was sent in the direction of North Africa, but never got there; his transport ship was sunk by U-boats in the North Atlantic. Peter found gainful employment as a Marine sniper in the Pacific. In 1943 he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war starving in a camp. John was both too old and, as a farmer, too strategically important to be sent off to war. He stayed home and tried to keep the family enterprises afloat.

War required lots of parachutes. Parachutes took a hell of a lot of nylon. One of the feedstocks required to manufacture nylon was cellulose. One excellent source of cellulose happened to be corn­cobs. And John Cozzano's factory had been throwing away corncobs by the hundreds of tons ever since it had gone into production. The heap of corncobs that rose from the prairie outside of Tuscola had now become the highest point in several counties and could be seen from twenty miles away, especially whenever pranksters set fire to it (photo).

Sam Meyer contacted everyone he knew. A lot of these were recent immigrants from Central Europe and were only too happy to invest in a parachute factory, knowing that it could have only one conceivable practical use. John got the nylon production unit up and running just in time to throw out a very low bid on a very large government contract. The next year, Allied shock troops poured into Normandy borne on billowing canopies of Cozzano nylon (photo).

Peter came back from war with bad kidneys and a bad leg. While he was not well equipped for doing physical labor, he performed a useful role as a troubleshooter, figurehead, and conversationalist of CBAP until he died of kidney failure in 1955. His father, Giuseppe, died two months later. During the interval between the war and these deaths, things had gone smoothly for the Cozzano family, except for the annihilation of the ancestral farmhouse in 1953 by a tornado (photo).

Two times in two months, the entire Meyer clan, led by Samuel and David, came down from Chicago to attend funeral services. Hotel rooms were scarce in Tuscola and kosher kitchens nonexistent, so John and Francesca put the Meyers up in their big stucco house and did what they could to provide them with acceptable cooking facilities. Francesca learned to keep a blowtorch handy so that Sam Meyer's son-in-law, a rabbi, could perform a ritual cleansing of her oven (photo).

During these visits, William Cozzano, now thirteen, shared his bedroom with a number of younger Meyers, including David's son Mel, who was the same age. They became friends and spent most of the time down the street at Tuscola City Parky playing baseball, Jews versus Italians (autographed baseball in glass box).

A year later Samuel Meyer died in Chicago. The Cozzanos all came north. Some of them stayed with the Domenicis, but the Meyers returned the favor by giving other Cozzanos a place to stay. Mel and William shared a mattress on the floor (photo).

After that, Mel and William stayed in constant touch. They liked each other. But they also knew they were the eldest sons of families that had accumulated much and that if they screwed up and lost it, it would be no one's fault but their own.

The remaining space in the office was filled with William A. Cozzano's personal memorabilia:

A black-and-white photo of his parents, the Olan Mills logo slanted across the bottom, shot in a makeshift traveling studio in a Best Western motel on the outskirts of Champaign-Urbana in 1948.

An assortment of six-inch-high capital letter T's, made from cloth, mounted under glass, along with a corny photo of the seventeen-year-old Cozzano, pigskin tucked under one arm, other arm held out like a jouster's lance to straight-arm an imaginary linebacker from Arcola or Rantoul.

Diploma from Tuscola High.

A photo of William with Christina, his high-school sweetheart, on the campus of the University of Illinois, where they had both attended college in the early sixties.

A wedding picture, the couple flanked by eight roughed and false-eyelashed sorority belles on one side and seven tuxed and pomaded University of Illinois football players, plus a single Nigerian graduate student, on the other.

Diploma (summa cum laude) with major in business and minor in Romantic languages.

A battered and abraded football covered with thick stout signatures, marked ROSE BOWL.

Two photos of Cozzano in the Marines, mounted side by side in the same frame: one, picture-perfect William in full-dress uniform, staring into the distance as though he can see a tunnel of light in the sky at one o'clock high, JFK in glory at the end of the tunnel, asking William what he can do for his country. The second picture, two years later: William Cozzano in a village in the Central Highlands, unshaven, eyes staring out alarmingly white and clean from a smoky face, a slack-jawed, inadvertent grin, a Browning automatic rifle dangling from one hand, a cherubic Vietnamese girl sitting in the crook of the other arm with her left leg wrapped in fresh white gauze, staring up at him with her tiny mouth open in astonishment; Cozzano was smiling through a crazy weariness that threatened to bring him to his knees at the next moment but the girl sensed that she was safe there.

Another glass mount, but instead of cloth letters this one had forged medallions hanging on colorful satin ribbons: a purple heart and a bronze star from Cozzano's first tour and another purple heart and a silver star from his second, surrounded by a flock of lesser decorations.

Baby pictures of Mary Catherine and James. An illuminated parchment from Pope John XXIII superfluously blessing their marriage.

A picture of his father on a fishing trip in Alaska, shortly before his fatal heart attack.

A photo of Cozzano in his Chicago Bears uniform, sitting on his helmet to keep up and out of a sideline morass, black grease on his cheekbones, blood hardening on his knuckles, grass stains on his shoulder pads.

Pro Bowl rings from a couple of different years in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

The last formal portrait of Christina, shot just before she had been transfigured by radiation and chemotherapy; this one also said "olan mills" and had been shot in a slightly nicer motel room in Champaign-Urbana by the same photographer who had done Cozzano's parents in 1948.

A photo of William giving a victory speech on the front lawn of the family house in Tuscola, flanked by Mary Catherine and James. Autographed photo of William with George Bush at The Peking Gourmet Restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, a harshly flash-lit amateur snapshot, Cozzano and Bush eating Peking duck in shirtsleeves and yukking it up.

Cozzano jogging around Camp David with Bill and Hilary Clinton.

An invitation to a White House dinner from the current President.

The dome of the Illinois State capitol was built on foundations of solid stone seventeen feet thick. Cozzano needed to keep all of this stuff in his line of sight while he worked, because these pictures and souvenirs were his foundations.

Cozzano was reading a letter that he was supposed to sign. He knew that he should simply do it, but his father had told him that he should always read things before he signed them. Since a large part of Cozzano's job involved signing things, this meant that he often worked late. He was holding his big pen in his left fist, nervously popping its cap on and off with the ball of his thumb.

The intercom made a gentle popping noise as Marsha, his secretary, turned on her microphone in the next room. Cozzano startled a little. Marsha had a talent for finding things to do, and when Cozzano stayed late she often hung around for a few hours and did them. Her voice came out of the speaker: "The State of the Union speech is about to begin, Governor."

"Thank you," Cozzano said, and shut off the intercom. "I guess," he added, to himself.

Cozzano reached for the remote control and turned it on to C-SPAN - he could not abide the network anchors - just in time to see the cameras pan over the ritualistic standing ovation given every president, no matter how incompetent. Continuing to thumb buttons on the remote, he caused a little window to open up in the corner of the screen, running the Comedy Channels' live coverage.

The egregious hypocrisy of the scene disgusted him. How could those assholes cheer the person who was leading - wrong, failing to lead - the country into disaster?

Eventually the applause died down, and the Speaker of the House reintroduced the president. There was a second obligatory standing ovation. Cozzano scoffed, shook his head, rubbed his temples with the palms of both hands. He couldn't take it. The cameras swept the section where the president's wife and family sat, smiling bravely. The president pathetically waved his arms to quiet the ovation, and then began his speech.

A year from tonight, I hope to stand on the West Front of this great building and begin my second term as your President.

(cheers and applause, mostly from one side of the hall)

He proceeded to do some ritual complaining about the usual topics: the budget deficit and the national debt. Just as predictably, he blamed it on the usual suspects: gridlock in Congress, the growth of entitlements, the insurmountable power of PACs, and, of course, the need to pay interest on the national debt, which had grown to something like ten trillion dollars. The only mildly interesting news coming out of the speech so far was that he intended to adopt a Rose Garden strategy during the coming election year, staying at the White House and doing battle with the two-headed monster of the deficit and the debt. This was the only responsible thing he could have done; but Congress applauded him deliriously.

It was all so completely predictable, so politics-as-usual, that Cozzano was lulled into a near coma, trapped between boredom and disgust. Which made it all the more shocking when the bombshell hit.

We must either cut entitlements - the payments made to our senior citizens on Social Security, and sick people on Medicare and Medicaid - or we must cut the interest that is paid to the national debt. Now, granted, we borrowed that money. We must pay it back if we can. And we most certainly will make our best effort to pay it back. But not at the expense of the sick and the old.

(applause and cheers)

Our debt is the result of our own sinful irresponsibility in fiscal matters, and we must accept the consequences of those sins.

But I am reminded of the words of the great Russian religious figure Rasputin, who once said, in a similar time of economic troubles, "Great sins demand great forgiveness."

(applause)

Let us not forget that we owe this money to ourselves. Surely we can find it in our hearts to repent from our economic foolishness and to forgive ourselves for the mistakes that were made by ourselves and by our predecessors.

(applause)

This nation was founded upon a great social contract. A contract in which people banded together to form governments in the defense of life, liberty, and property. This noble experiment has lasted for more than two centuries. Written into the contract by our founding father Jefferson was the assertion that if government violates the contract, the people have the right to overthrow it. This is the basis of the glorious revolutionary tradition that serves as a shining light of inspiration for the entire world.

(applause, cheers)

Tonight, in the spirit of Jefferson, I call for a new social contract. I am proposing to the Congress, and to the American people, the Declaration of Fiscal Independence.

(applause)

In short, my fellow Americans, I propose as a first step to place a cap on the percentage of our budget that can go toward paying interest on the national debt. The exact level of this cap, and the details of its implementation, are subject to discussion and agreement between my staff and Congress -and I'm sure that we can look forward to many lively discussion on the issue.

(laughter)

But regardless of the details, the message is the same. Great sins demand great forgiveness. Let us now forgive ourselves, so that we may go forth into the brave new world of the third millennium with a clean slate and a clear conscience.

(thunderous applause and cheers)

Let the message go forth to the world that the country of the third millennium will be the United States of America and that its opening breaths of life were sounded in this noble hall on this great evening.

(ten-minute standing ovation)

It was an outrage, pure and simple.

Having failed over his entire term in office to do anything about the budget deficit, the President was now going to patch it up by allowing America to weasel out of its financial obligations.

Which was bad enough in and of itself; but he was also trying to portray this measure as an act of Lincolnian fortitude on his part.

Cozzano felt an atavistic desire to fly to Washington, climb up on that podium, and slap the President across the face. It was the same brute, animalistic impulse that came into his head when he imagined someone hurting his daughter. His heart thumped powerfully a few times. He realized that he was being primitive and stupid, and tried to calm himself down. There was no point in thinking these things.

Still Cozzano did not sign the letter on his desk - a thank-you note to the Prime Minister of Japan for his hospitality during Cozzano's visit last week. His powerful fingers gripped the smooth inlaid barrel of the pen. The rhodium alloy nib, charged with just the correct amount of French ink, was poised a few millimeters above the grainy surface of the buttery cotton-fiber stationery that Cozzano used for personal correspondence. But when Cozzano moved the pen - that is, when he did the thing in his mind that, ever since he had been inside his mother's womb, had caused his fingers and his hand to move - nothing happened. His eyes tracked

across the paper, anticipating the pen's course. Nothing. The President spoke on and on, stopping every few sentences to bask in adulation.

Cozzano's hand sweated. After a while, then pen fell out of his fingers. The nib dove into the paper and slid straight across it like a plow skidding across hard prairie. It left a comet-shaped streak of blue-black on the page, whacked down flat, and rocked side to side for a few moments, making a gentle diminishing noise.

He cursed under his breath and a strange sound came out of his mouth, a garbled word he'd never heard before. It sounded so unfamiliar that he tried to look up, thinking that someone else might be in the room. But no one was here; he had spoken the word himself.

When he moved his head it threw him off balance and pulled him toward the left. His left arm had gone completely limp. He saw it slide off the desk, but he didn't quite believe it, because he didn't feel it move. The cufflink, a cheap hand-me-down from his father, popped against the sharp edge of the tabletop. Then his arm was swinging at his side, eased to a halt by the slight mechanical friction of his elbow and shoulder joints.

He slumped back into the chair's comfortable, Cozzano-shaped recesses. His right arm slid off the desk as he did so and he found that he could move it. He was sitting comfortably in his chair now, sagging leftward. He saw his intercom and knew that he could punch the button and call Marsha. But it was not clear what he should say to her.

His eyes drooped half shut, the sound of the roaring, stomping, howling, and applauding Congress closed in on him like a nail keg lowering over his head, and in his confusion, he lost his will. He was entirely too tired to do anything, and why bother to fight it? He had accomplished enough for several lifetimes. The only thing he'd missed out on so far was having some grandchildren.

That, and become President, which he was going to do before the year 2000. But he wasn't sure if he really wanted that awful job anyway.

2

The State of the Union was never a big event in Cacher, Oklahoma. Forty-eight-year-old Otis Simpson yawned and looked at the wall clock, just for the record. It was 02:46:12 Greenwich Mean Time. He turned the sound off. The speech had devolved into endless waves of applause. Commentators were beginning to break into the sound track in hushed, solemn tones, stating the obvious: "the President shaking hands with congressional leaders as he makes his way out of the room." Soon the analysts would come on and tell Otis what he had just watched, and Otis definitely didn't need that. The only opinions that mattered would be coming in via fax and modem during the next few hours. His job was to stay awake in the meantime. So he triggered the other monitor and began to keep one eye on an HBO flick, already in progress.

Otis had inherited his mother's tendency toward bulk, his father Otho's awkward looks, and a light regard for basic hygiene. The many folds in his ample frame contained an inexhaustible supply of sweat-blackened lint balls, and his thinning hair failed to conceal the skin ailments that plagued his scalp. He had never married. His mother had died giving birth to him. He served as a trusted assistant on his father's work, the full extent of which he never fully understood.

Otho Simpson, eighty-six, had, as was his pattern, gone to bed at 00:00:00 Greenwich Mean Time. This time was as good a bedtime as any other and was easy to remember. Otho and Otis lived belowground, in a former lead mine, and did not pay much attention to the diurnal cycle upstairs. Their job was to gather and respond to information from all over the world, from all twenty-

four time zones, and so there was not much point in trying to hew to a particular schedule. Otho was spare and gaunt, hampered by persistent urinary tract infections that filled whatever room he was in with a disconcerting odor and caused continual pain. Unlike his son, Otho had a mind that, had he chosen, could have earned him a Nobel Prize in economics or physics or at least made him a very rich man in a more conventional sense. Instead, he had become an accountant of sorts, and spent his life looking after a body of investments with a total cash value in the neighborhood of thirty trillion U.S. dollars.

These assets did not belong to any one specific person or entity, as far as Otho could tell. They belonged to a coordinated inter-national network of investors. Otho didn't know who these people were. He wasn't supposed to know and he probably wasn't supposed to think about it. But he did think about it from time to time, and he had drawn some conclusions based on circumstantial evidence. Most of them were individuals, many were families; some were corporations. Their net worths varied from a few million dollars up to tens of billions. Judging from the hours when they liked to do business, most of them must be living in American and European time zones, with a few in the time zones that were used by Japan, Hong Kong, and Australia. He only knew one member of this organization by name, one Lady Guenevere Wilburdon; she was his contact and his boss.

In the last half century, especially after the death off his wife in 1948, Otho had rarely left Cacher. Several times a week he would hobble on to the lift, ride it several hundred feet straight up to the surface and go for a stroll through the ruins of the town, taking in what passed for fresh air in Cacher and feeling the sun on his skin. But he felt most comfortable down below, in the subterranean capsule that was his home, surrounded by twenty feet of solid reinforced concrete, breathing filtered air and drinking distilled water.

The capsule had been built during the early fifties by a huge international contractor called Maclntyre Engineering. It was built to exactly the same set of specifications used for the control capsules of Minuteman silos - easy enough, since Maclntyre had con­structed most of those. Any information that could conceivably influence the performance of the economy - public and proprietary, open and secret, from hard data to vicious gossip - was funneled into the capsule over a variety of communications links. Otho read every word of it and used it to manage the investments of the Network. His life was rather solitary and he had not seen a movie in a theater since The Sound of Music, but he did not care; the honor of being the anonymous manager of a significant fraction of the assets of what used to be called the Free World sufficed to give him a value-laden life.

Several hours after the conclusion of the State of the Union address, at 06:00:00 GMT, a digitized chord sounded from one of the workstations, waking Otis up. A window materialized on the screen and filled with columns of numbers. This was normal; it happened every day at this time.

A chorus of faint humming noises was emanating from a stainless steel rack carrying several dozen identical fax machines. Otis was surprised to note that nearly all of the machines suddenly had long strips of paper dangling out of them, and several were still active. Most of his father's clients took a hands-off approach and rarely, if ever, bothered him with specifics.

Otis went to the workstation and scanned the numbers: a statistical summary of how the Network's investments had per­formed during the last twenty-four hours, and initial responses to the State of the Union Address from the stock exchanges in Delhi, Novosibirsk, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. All of the capital markets were sharply down. Commodities, especially gold, were soaring uncontrollably.

The digital clock on the wall clicked to 06:10. Otis went in to wake up Otho. Otho and Otis slept in steel-framed bunk beds in a small room just off the communications center.

"Daddy, the figures for yesterday are in."

Otho sat up in bed without hesitation, as if he'd never been asleep. Another workstation was next to him on a bedside table. He reached out with one withered hand, grabbed a mouse, and chose

a few commands from the menus on the screen. A copy of the financial tables materialized. He put on a pair of extremely thick glasses that made his eyes look the size of baseballs.

The numbers for the first part of the day weren't bad. But the State of the Union address had changed all that.

"We got a lot of faxes too," Otis said, handing his father a thick sheaf of slick, curly paper, covered with notes from all over the world, many handwritten.

"Jesus Christ," Otho said, "what did that son of a bitch say?"

"Daddy, I turned the sound off on him and watched an HBO movie."

"Probably not a bad idea. Pull up the CNN monitor tape and rerun the speech for me - no, hold it, I can't stand the thought of watching him. Download a transcript off the news wire."

"Okay, Daddy."

Ten minutes later, Otis brought back the transcript. Otho scanned through it, looking for a few key words, and went almost instantly to the concept of forgiveness. Deep vertical crevices appeared in the middle of his brow and he let out a feeble stream of air through pursed lips.

By this time Otis knew he was in for a long night, so he turned on the bedside TV set and punched up CNBC.

"That bastard has just got every bull and bear in the world going insane." Otho set the faxes down on his bedside table and slipped his feet into a pair of slippers by the bed. "But he's half right. This country has problems. Someone needs to do something or all of its investors will get screwed."

"Investors?"

"Yup. America used to have citizens. Then its government put it up for sale. Now it's got investors. You and I work for the investors."

Otis regarded his father with the mixture of respect, fear, and awe that he had shown since he was a child. "What's going on, Dad?"

"It was just a matter of time before some politician actually became stupid enough to mention forgiving the national debt."

"Like Senator Wright?"

"Yeah. Who died in a plane crash. But obviously the President thought it sounded like a catchy idea."

"How are you going to handle this, Daddy?"

"Crank up the word-processing software. I'm going to do the first round-robin report since the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is too big for me to just fly off the handle - I have to provide the Network some options."

Otho's joints creaked and ground audibly in the nearly perfect silence of the capsule as he made his way out of bed, over to a stainless steel toilet, and from there into the control center. He sat down in front of a large high-resolution monitor and began jotting down a few options, as they came into his head. Later, he could rework them into deathless prose:

a. Pull investment out of the U.S. national debt - absorbing the

loss immediately - and explore new areas, such as purchasing the

larger part of the former Soviet Union;

b. Do nothing and hope that the American political structure

will muddle through;

c. Intervene directly in American politics in order to return it to

a certain sort of stability and to insure our long-term investment in

the debt;

d. Suggestions?

He then directed his system to send out the message in encrypted burst-mode fax transmissions. Beyond vague geographical indi­cations, he did not know to whom the faxes would go. When he had taken control of the Network's finances fifty years ago, it had been stipulated that all communication would be to code-identified participants.

The returns came in remarkably quickly. In the aftermath of the President's speech, everyone important was awake right now, regardless of time zone.

With the exception of a few Middle Easterners who wanted the Network to invest massively in the Muslim-dominated republics of the former Soviet Union, most of the Network liked the third option. The clincher was a fax from Lady Wilburdon, the acting

chairperson, who noted, "You have done well for us, and we place our trust in you. Put your country back in working order."

He spent a few minutes doodling with an old, well-worn slide rule. Back in the early seventies he had purchased a couple of the first pocket calculators and, as a mathematician, been horrified by their illusive precision. The slide rule was a far more trustworthy and illuminating guide to the numerical world.

The United States had borrowed ten trillion dollars since the onset of Reaganomics. A significant fraction of that debt was now owned by the Network. Those loans were supposed to bring in a certain fixed amount of interest every year. The cap proposed by the President would reduce that income by an amount on the order of a few tens of billions of dollars per year - possibly even more, if the country went into a deeper crisis and made further cuts.

In the long run, then, the Network stood to loose hundred of billions of dollars from the measures that the President had just proposed. Otho was therefore justified in spending real money here - easily in the tens of billions. This was more than enough to throw an election. Perot had nearly done it for just a few hundred million.

Otho knew perfectly well that his Network was not the only organization of its type in the world, and that he was not the only person running through this sort of a calculation tonight. It wasn't enough just to mess around with an election; everyone would be getting into that game during the next few months. The important thing was to do it well, and not just on an ad hoc basis but as part of a coherent long-range strategy.

If the Network planned carefully and wasn't too obvious about it, it could go far beyond managing the outcome of this one election. It could actually erect a system that would enable America's investors to have a permanent say in the management of their assets. It would eat up a lot of the Network's liquidity, but by moving some money around, Otho would be able to free up enough to assemble quite a little war chest. The markets had all gone to hell anyway, providing a perfect cover for the enormous shifts he would have to make in the next couple of days.

The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that it was a sound decision. He should have done it a long time ago. The fact that he hadn't probably proved that he was obsolete, or something.

The United States of America had severed its purpose. It was time to cash her in. Like a big creaky old corporation, her individual parts, intelligently liquidated, were worth more than the whole. She still had the best damn military money could buy, as the Iraqis had discovered during the Gulf War, and she still came up with new ideas better than anyone. Under new, fiscally responsible management, she could still perform well, pay her debts, and provide a tolerable standard of living for her citizens. Otho needed to make sure that that management was provided by the Network and not by one of the other entities with which the Network competed.

He sent out a fax to Mr. Salvador telling him to swing by Cacher for a face-to-face. That was the hard part; he had never been good at the interpersonal stuff. Then he got down to the work he did better than anyone else in the world: sending out sell orders, shuffling assets, arranging his pieces on the board.

In simple numerical terms, liquidating the Constitution of the United States was not the biggest or the most difficult job Otho had ever undertaken. For some reason it made him nervous anyway. Since the Kennedy assassination he'd had nothing but contempt for politicians. But he wasn't attacking a particular president here; he was attacking the institution of the presidency. Meddling with primal forces. He moved slowly, made mistakes in his arithmetic, forgot things, kept going back on his own decisions. It was an unfamiliar sensation to be agonizing about his job. Images kept coming unbidden into his mind, clouding his thoughts: FDR declaring war on Japan, the moon landings, D-Day, football games on Thanksgiving, Lou Gehrig's farewell speech.

More than once his fingers came to a dead stop on the keyboard as these and more personal, more emotional memories surged uncontrollably through his mind. He wondered if senility had finally touched him. Finally he had to get up and hobble over to

their little kitchen and take the bottle of vodka out of the freezer. He knew that he was doing the right thing here, that if he didn't someone else would. But it hurt.

By 10:00:00 GMT, the communications room was once again quiet. Otis woke up from a short nap and went in to check on Otho.

From the dark room, a thin voice almost chanted, "Well you know, this country once worked real well, when we had values that people believed in."

Otis saw the empty vodka bottle on the table, still fogged with condensation, and realized that his father had just gotten drunk for the first time in three decades. "What do you mean by values?"

"They were code words like honesty, hard work, self- reliance . myths, actually, to motivate the people to accept the natural inequities found in a market system. In the old days, contract was sacred: divorce, bankruptcy, fraud, were taboos for the average people. The rogues of course, the robber barons were beyond that. We have to return the country to those values so that there won't even be a thought to renege on the debt."

"Daddy..."

"Yes, boy?"

"How will you do it?"

"I think I'll hand this one off to Mr. Salvador. He's an ambitious fella. He obviously wants to take my place a couple of years down the road, or whenever Lady Wilburdon decides to replace me. He's an asshole, and there's a good chance he'll get killed or ruined trying to do this. And if he survives, he'll be a better man for it."

"Daddy?"

"Yes, boy."

"Good night, Daddy."

3

"Look, it's not like this is some kind of a-" aaron green said. Then a cautious instinct took control and he brought himself up short. He was looking over the epaulets of the security guard at a large red sign on the wall: DO NOT MAKE JOKES OR COMMENTS REGARDING WEAPONS OR EXPLOSIVE DEVISES.

"It's not a what?" said the guard in front of Aaron, a wiry older white man. Aaron was still trying to decide where to begin when the guard spoke the dreaded words: "Step over here with me, sir."

Aaron followed the guard over to a table, just beyond the picket line of metal detectors, still within the dreaded security zone. Beyond it lay the concourse, a pacifist Utopia full of weaponless citizens streaming in an orderly fashion toward their gates. In the overpriced bars and overpriced restaurants, business-suited travelers stood, drinks in hand, below television sets, watching the President deliver his State of the Union address.

"What do we have there, sir?" said the guard behind the table, the chief of this beady-eyed, polyethnic truth squad. He was a very wide, convex black man with a deep voice and he was trying to sound open-minded and jolly. He was wearing an ID flasher with the name BRISTOLS, MAX.

"It's a piece of electronic equipment," Aaron said, setting the case on the table.

"I see. And you can open this up and show it to me?" Bristol said.

The case was largely full of gray foam rubber. A rectangular cavity the size of a couple of shoe boxes had been excavated from

the center. Filling this cavity was a white steel box with ventilation slots cut into the top. The box was exactly the right width to fit into a standard electronics rack.

The plan was that one day, a whole lot of these things would be sacked together in racks, racks lined up next to each other, hundreds in a single room. The room and the equipment would be owned by big media companies in L.A. They would buy all of the stuff from Green Biophysical Systems, of which Aaron Green was the founder, chief technologist, president, and treasurer.

With the lid of the case open, the upper half of the faceplate was visible. It had no controls, knobs, or anything, just a single red LED with the word power printed underneath it, and, in big letters, the Green Biophysical Systems logo, and the acronym IMIPREM.

The power cord was coiled up in a separate niche in the gray foam rubber. Yet another niche contained an item that Aaron hoped they wouldn't notice: a cuff. Hard plastic shell lined with black foam, for comfort. He wondered what the guards would think of that.

"Looks interesting," the guard said. His insincerity was palpable. "What is it?"

Aaron took a deep breath. "An instantaneous, multiplexing, integrating, physiological response evaluation and monitoring device."

"What does it do?"

It doesn't blow up. "Well. It's a little bit like a polygraph."

"I need to see it work."

"What?'

"I need to see your IMIPREM work," Bristol said.

Aaron pulled the IMIPREM out of its foam rubber nest and set it on the table. Then he uncoiled the power cord, fit one end into a three-pronged recessed socket on the back of the unit, and plugged the other end into a wall outlet near the table. The little LED came on. "There," he said.

Bristol raised his eyebrows and looked extremely dubious. "That's all it does?"

"Well, it does a lot more than that, naturally," Aaron said, "but it has no interface, per se, except through a computer. See, if I could hook this up to a computer, it would produce all kinds of meaningful output."

"But the only thing it'll do right now, here, for me, is turn on this little red light," Bristol said.

Aaron was trying to come up with a diplomatic way to say yes when they were interrupted by another person. He was carrying a laptop computer. He was holding the device out at arm's length.

"Tick, tick, tick, tick!" the man was saying. But he pronounced it "teeuhk, teeuhk." He was one of those southerners who could add syllables to words and make it sound good. "And then somewhere over Newark - BOOM! Haw, haw, haw!"

The old guard grinned and guided him to the table.

"Sir," Bristol said.

"Howdy," the man with the computer said. "This is a Compaq - more bang for the buck than IBM! Haw haw!"

As Aaron watched in disbelief, Bristol exchanged a friendly, knowing grin with the big southerner.

"Got a Gamma Prime CPU, a gigabyte drive, and three pounds of Semtex," the southerner said.

He had a smooth, trombonelike voice that could be heard for miles. All of the metal detector guards were looking at him and chuckling. The businessmen filing through the metal detectors, picking their pocket change out of the plastic buckets, were looking at the southerner with appreciative grins, shaking their heads.

He was tall, probably a couple of inches over six feet, had love handles, an unexceptional suit, a high forehead, the beginnings' of jowls, a florid complexion, eyebrows raised up in a perpetually surprised or skeptical expression, a tiny little pursed mouth. "Whoa, looks like I got some competition here!" he blurted, eyeing the IMIPREM in mock wonder.

Then his whole face changed; suddenly his eyes were narrowed and darting, he had become secret and conspiratorial, shooting sidelong glances at Bristol, Max. "Abu Jihad!" he hissed at Aaron. "Praise be to Allah! We have perfected a nuclear device capable of fitting under an airline seat!"

The big guard and the southerner joined together in loud, booming laughter. "I got a glass of bourbon with my name on it in that bar by the gate," the southerner finally said, "so let me crank this thing up for you and get on out of here. If you don't mind, sir," he added to Aaron, courteously enough.

"Not at all."

The man snapped the computer open and folded back the top; to reveal its screen, a flat, high-resolution, color monitor. Aaron had other things to be worrying about right now, but he couldn't help staring at the man's computer; it was one of the nicest and most powerful laptops you could buy, certainly one of the most expensive. These things had only been on the market for a couple of months. This one was already worn and battered around the edges.

The southerner hit the on button, hollering "BOOM!" so loud that Bristol actually startled a little bit. Then he laughed.

The screen came alive with windows and icons. From a distance, Aaron recognized about half of the icons. He knew what this soft­ware did. He could guess that the southerner did a lot of statistical analysis, desktop publishing, and even desktop video production.

"Sir, would this do the trick?" Bristol was saying.

"Yo!" said the southerner, giving Aaron a dig on the arm. "He's talking to you!"

"Huh?" Aaron said.

"Would this computer be capable of talking to your machine there?" Bristol said.

"Well, yes, if it had the right software loaded on to its hard drive. Which it doesn't."

"Oh, I see what's going on," the southerner said. Suddenly he stuck out his hand toward Aaron. "Cy Ogle," he said. "Pro­nounced, but not spelled, like mogul."

"Aaron Green."

Cy Ogle laughed. "So you have to show this guy here that your box won't blow up when we reach our cruising altitude. And until you hook it up to a computer, it won't do anything except turn on that little red light."

"Exactly."

"Which don't mean jack to him, because that light is about the size of a grain of rice, and for all he knows the rest of the box is full of black powder and roofing nails."

"Well..."

"You have the software with you? On floppies? Well, load it in there, and let's take this baby for a spin."

Aaron couldn't believe the guy was serious. But he was. Aaron fished the diskette with the IMIPREM software out of his briefcase and popped it into the drive on Ogle's machine. A single-typed command copied the files on to Ogle's hard drive.

In the meantime, Ogle had already figured out what to do with the cable: he ran it from the back of the IMIPREM into the corresponding port on the laptop.

"Okay. Ready to roll," Aaron said.

Aaron unbuttoned his shirt cuff. He fished the plastic cuff out of the case and snapped it snugly around his exposed wrist.

A ten-foot cable dangled from the cuff. Most of it was coiled up and held together by a plastic wire tie. Aaron plugged it into the back of the IMIPREM.

A new window materialized on the screen of Ogle's computer. It was a moving, animated bar graph. Half a dozen colored bars, of different lengths, fluctuated up and down. At the base of each bar was a label:

BP RESP TEMP PERSP PULS

GSR NEUR

"It's monitoring my body right now. See, the bars stand for blood pressure, respiration, body temp, and a few other things. Of course, this is its most basic level of functioning, beyond this it's capable of an incredible number of different-"

Ogle's hand slammed down on Aaron's shoulder and gripped him like a pair of barbecue tongs.

"I'm an undercover agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms," Cy Ogle said, "You're under arrest for conspiracy

to commit terrorist acts on board an airliner. Don't move or you'll be shot!"

"What!?" Aaron screamed.

"Just kidding," Ogle said, "Haw, haw!"

"He's right, look at the bars," the guard said.

Blood pressure and just about everything else had suddenly shot way up. As they watched, and as Aaron calmed down, the bars subsided.

"Thanks for the demonstration, sir, it was very interesting," the guard said. "Have a nice flight."

Then Bristol turned to look down the concourse. Aaron and Ogle were both looking that way too; some kind of generalized disturbance seemed to have broken out. But it wasn't hooligans or terrorists. It was businessmen in suits, stampeding out of the bars and restaurants where they had been watching the President on TV. They ran down the concourse, knocking travelers and sky caps aside, and began to scuffle over the few available pay telephones.

Ogle chuckled indulgently. "Looks like the President made a corker of a speech," he said. "Maybe we should hook you machine up to them."

As it turned out, they were on the same flight, sitting across the aisle from each other in the first row of first class. Coach was full of shuffling grannies and beefy sailors; first class was mostly empty. Ogle worked on his computer for the first hour or so, whacking the keys so rapidly that it sounded like a hailstorm on the tray table, occasionally mumbling a good-natured "shit!" and doing it again.

Aaron pulled a blank tablet of graph paper out of his briefcase, uncapped a pen, and stared at it until they were somewhere over Pittsburgh. Then it was dinnertime and he put it away. He was trying to organize his thoughts. But he didn't have any.

After dinner, Ogle moved from the window to the aisle seat, right across from Aaron, and then startled Aaron a little by ordering them both drinks.

"Big presentation," Ogle said.

Aaron heaved a sigh and nodded.

"You got some kind of small high-tech company."

"Yeah."

"You developed this thing, spent all your venture capital, prob­ably maxed out your credit cars to boot, and now you got to make some money off it or your investors will cash you in."

"Yeah, that's about right."

"And the cash flow is killing you because all the parts that go into these things cost money, but you don't actually get paid for them until, what, thirty or sixty days after you ship 'em. If you're lucky."

"Yeah, it's a problem all right," Aaron said. His face was getting red. This had started out interesting, gotten uncanny, and now it was starting to annoy him.

"So, let's see. You're going to L.A. The big industry in L.A. is entertainment. You got a device that measures people's reactions to things. A people meter."

"I wouldn't call it a people meter."

"Course not. But that's what they'll call it. Except it's a whole lot better than the usual kind, I could see that right away. Anyway, you're going to go meet with a bunch of executives for movie and television studios, maybe some ad agencies, and persuade 'em to buy a whole bunch of these things, hook 'em up to man-on-the­street types, show 'em movies and TV programs so they can do all that test audience stuff."

"Yeah, that's about right. You're a very perceptive man, Mr. Ogle."

"What I get paid for," Ogle said.

"You work in the media industry?"

"Yeah, that's a good way to put it," Ogle said.

"You seem to know a lot about what I do."

"Well," Ogle said. All of a sudden he seemed quiet, reflective. He pushed the button on his armrest and leaned his chair back a couple of inches. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, curled one hand around his drink. "High-tech has its own biorhythms."

"Biorhythms?"

Ogle opened one eye, turned his head a bit, peered at Aaron.

"Course you probably don't like that word because you are Mr. High Tech, and it sounds to you like cocktail-party pseudoscience."

"Exactly." Aaron was beginning to think that Ogle knew him better than he knew himself.

"Fair enough. But I have a legitimate point here. See, we live under capitalism. Capitalism is defined by competition for capital. Would-be businessmen, and existing businesses seeking to expand, fight for the tiny supply of available capital like starving jackals around a zebra leg.

"That's a depressing image."

"It's a depressing country. It's not like that in other countries where people save more money. But it's like that here, now, because we don't have values that encourage savings."

"Okay."

"Consequently you are starved for capital."

"Right!"

"You had to get capital from venture capitalists - or vulture capitalists, as we call them - who are like the vultures that feed on the jackals when they become too starved and weak to defend themselves."

"Well, I don't think my investor would agree."

"They probably would," Ogle said, "they just wouldn't do so in your presence."

"Okay."

"Venture capitalism is risky and so the vulture capitalists hedge their bets by pooling funds and investing in a number of start-ups at once - backing several horses, as it were."

"Of course."

"But what they don't tell you is that at a certain point a couple of years into its life cycle, the start-up suddenly needs to double or triple its capitalization in order to survive. To get over those cash flow problems that occur when orders suddenly go from zero to more than zero. And when that happens, the vulture capitalists look at all of their little companies and they cull out the weakest two-thirds and let them starve. The rest, they provide with the capital they need in order to continue."

Aaron said nothing. Suddenly he was feeling tired and depressed.

"That's what's happening to your company right now," Ogle said. "You're, what, three years old?"

"How'd you know that!?" Aaron said, twisting around in his seat, glaring at Ogle, who remained quiescent in his big fat chair. He was almost expecting to see a crew from Candid Camera filming him from the galley.

"Just a lucky guess. Your logo," Ogle said, "you designed your logo yourself."

Again Aaron's face reddened. He had, in fact, designed it himself. But he thought it was fairly professional, a lot more so than the typical home-brewed logo. "Yeah, so what?" he said. "It works. And it was free."

"Okay, this is ridiculous," Aaron said. "How did you know that?"

"If you were old enough to have made the cut - if you had passed through the capitalization barrier - you would have immediately gone out and hired professional designers to spiff up your corporate image. The vultures would have insisted on it."

"Yeah, that was going to be our next step," Aaron said.

"That's okay. That speaks well of you, as a scientist, if not as a businessman," Ogle said. "A lot of people start with image and then try to develop substance. But you are a techie and you hate all that superficial crap. You refuse to compromise."

"Well, thank you for that vote of confidence," Aaron said, not entirely sarcastically.

The flight attendant came through. They each ordered another drink.

"You seem to have this all figured out," Aaron said.

"Oh, no, not at all."

"I don't mean that to sound resentful," Aaron said. "I was just wondering-"

"Yes?" Ogle said, raising his eyebrows very high and looking at Aaron over his glasses, which he had slid down his nose.

"What do you think? You think I have a chance?"

"In L.A.?"

"Yeah."

"With the big media moguls?"

"Yeah."

"No. You don't have a chance."

Aaron heaved a big sigh, closed his eyes, took a gulp of his drink. He had just met Ogle but he instinctively knew that everything that Ogle had said, all night long, was absolutely true.

"Which doesn't mean that your company doesn't have a chance."

"It doesn't?"

"Course not. You got a good product there. It's just that you don't know how to market it."

"You think I should have gone out and gotten a flashy logo."

"Oh, no, I'm not saying that at all. I think your logo's fine. It's just that you have a misconception in your marketing strategy."

"How so?"

"You're aiming at the wrong people," Ogle said, very simply and plainly, as if he were getting annoyed at Aaron for not figuring this all out on his own.

"Who else can I aim at with a product of this type?"

Ogle squeezed his armrest again, leaned forward, allowed his seat to come upright. He put his drink on his tray table and sat up straight, as if getting down to work. "You're right in thinking that the media need to do people-metering kinds of stuff," he said. "The problem is that the kinds of people who run media companies are not going to buy your product."

"Why not? It's the best thing like it. It's years ahead."

Ogle cut him off with a dismissive wave of the hand. "Doesn't matter," he said flatly, and shook his head. "Doesn't matter."

"It doesn't matter how good my product is?"

"Not at all. Not with those people. Because you are selling to media people. And media people are either thugs, morons, or weasels. You haven't dealt very much with media people, have you?"

"Very little."

"I can tell. Because you don't have that kind of annoying, superficial quality that people get when they deal for a living with thugs, morons, and weasels. You are very earnest and sincere and committed to certain principles, as a scientist, and thugs and morons and weasels do not understand that. And when you give them an explanation of how brilliant your machine is, you'll just be putting them off."

"I have spent a hell of a lot of time finding ways to explain this device in terms that almost anyone can understand," Aaron said.

"Doesn't mater. Won't help. Because in the end, no matter how you explain it, it comes down to fine, subtle technicalities. Media people don't like that. They like the big, fabulous concept." Ogle pronounced "fabulous" with a mock-Hollywood gush.

Aaron laughed rather hotly. He had seen enough media people to know this was true.

"If you come to a media person and you want to do a miniseries about the Civil War, or Shakespeare, or the life of J.S. Bach, they will laugh in your face. Because nobody wants to watch that stuff. You know, intelligent stuff. They want pro wrestling. Media people who try to do Shakespeare get fired or go broke. The only ones who survived long enough to talk to you are the ones who backed pro wrestling. And when you come up to them talking about the fine points of your brilliant technology, it makes them think of Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci, which they hate and fear."

"So I'm dead."

"If you rely on selling to media people, you're dead."

"But who else needs a device like this one except for media people?"

"Well," Ogle said softly, sounding almost surprised, as if he hadn't gotten around to considering this question. "Well, actually, I could use it. Maybe."

"You said you were in media," Aaron said.

Ogle held one finger up. "Not exactly. I said I worked in the media industry. But I am not a media person, per se."

"What are you?"

"A scientist."

"And what is your field of study?"

"You, Aaron, are a biophysicist. You study the laws that determine the functioning of the body. Well, I am a political biophysicist. I study the laws that govern the functioning of the body politic."

"Oh. Could you be a little more specific?"

"People call me a pollster," Ogle said. "Which is like calling you a palm reader."

4

Eleanor Boxwood Richmond heard the State of the Union address on the radio, but she didn't really listen to it. She was driving a borrowed car down abandoned streets in Eldorado Highlands, an aborted suburb ten miles north of Denver. She had borrowed the car from Doreen, who lived in the trailer next to hers, several miles to the east, in the town of Commerce City.

In case the police tried to phone with any news of her husband, Eleanor had dropped her football phone out her kitchen window, pulled it across the gap between her trailer and Doreen's, and fed it through the window of Doreen's bedroom. Eleanor's husband, Harmon, for whom she was searching, had obtained the football phone free of charge by subscribing to Sports Illustrated some years ago. Now the Sports Illustrated were still showing up on time, every week, while Harmon himself, depressed by unemployment and bankruptcy, had become more and more erratic. Some things you could at least count on.

Eleanor felt foolish and humiliated every time she spoke on the football phone. It did not make looking for a job in the banking industry any easier. She would sit there in her trailer, which would be baking hot or freezing cold according to the outside tem­perature. She kept the windows closed even in summer so that the screaming of Doreen's kids, and the heavy metal from the trailer on the other side, would not be audible to the person she was speaking to. She would telephone people wearing dark suits in air-conditioned buildings and she would hold the little plastic football to the side of her head and try to sound like a banker. So far she had not gotten any jobs.

Back in the old days, when the whole family had lived together, happily, in their big house in this suburban development in Eldorado Highlands, they had had a phone in every room. In addition to the football phone they had had a sneaker phone; a cheap little Radio Shack phone that would always go off the hook unless you set it down firmly on a hard surface; and a couple of solid, traditional AT&T telephones. All of these phones had disappeared during the second burglary of their trailer and so they had been forced to get the football phone out of storage and use that instead.

Eleanor Richmond had not seen her husband, Harmon, in two days. For the first day, this had been more of a relief than anything else, because usually when she did see him, he was half-reclined on their broken-backed sofa in front of the TV set, drinking. From time to time he would go out and get a Mcjob, work at it for a few days, quit or get fired, and then come back home. Harmon never lasted very long at Mcjobs because he was an engineer, and flipping burgers or jerking Slurpees grated on his nerves, just as talking on the football phone grated on Eleanor's.

The neighborhood that Eleanor was driving through had been built on a perfectly flat high plains ranch in the early eighties. All of the houses were empty, and three-quarters of them always had been; as you drove down the curvy streets, you could look across yards that were reverting to short-grass prairie, in through the front windows of the houses, all the way through their empty interiors, out the back windows, across a couple of more yards, and through another similar house on another similar street.

Eleanor and Harmon Richmond had purchased their house brand new, before the carpet was even installed. It was early in the Reagan administration. Harmon worked for a medium-sized aerospace firm that sold avionics to the Defense Department. Eleanor had just finished raising their two children to school age and had reentered the workforce. She had started out as a teller for a bank in Aurora and been promoted to customer service representative in fairly short order. Soon she would be branch manager. Eleanor's mother, a widow, had sold the ancestral town house in Washington, D.C., and moved out to a fairly nice retirement community a short distance away.

They were doing pretty well for themselves. So, when the houses around them remained empty, for a month, then six months, then a year, and the value of their house began to fall, they didn't get too worried about it. Everyone makes a bum investment now and then. They were well compensated, the mortgage pay­ments weren't that bad, and they could easily cover their expenses, including the monthly payment to Mother's retirement community.

Times had actually been good for several years. They should have taken advantage of that to squirrel some money away. But the Richmonds were the only people in their respective families who had managed to make the breakthrough to the middle class, which meant that each one of them had a coterie of siblings, nephews, nieces, and cousins living in various ghettos up and down the East Coast, all of whom felt they had a claim on what they all imagined was the family fortune. They wired a lot of money back East. It didn't come back.

They broke even until the early nineties, when Harmon's company got LBO'd, and the financiers in New York who had bought it began to break it up and sell off the little parts to various people. The particular part of it that Harmon worked for got sold to Gale Aerospace, a defense contractor based in Chicago. They gave him a choice: move to Chicago or move to Chicago. But they couldn't move to Chicago without selling their house, which now was worth half what they had paid for it. Harmon got fired.

They following year, the bank that Eleanor worked for was bought out by a huge California bank that already had millions of branches all over the area - including one that was directly across the street from the one where Eleanor worked. They closed her branch and she lost her job.

The foreclosure on their house had not been long in coming. They had bounced around from one big apartment complex to another for a few years and finally wound up in the trailer park in Commerce City, next to Doreen. They still had two cars, a 1981

Volvo wagon that they had bought used, and a rather old Datsun that did not work anymore and -was parked, permanently, in front of the trailer. Harmon had taken the Volvo with him when he disappeared, stranding Eleanor in the trailer.

She had sought him everywhere else. Now, just for the sake of being complete, she was back in the old neighborhood.

It was amazing how quickly you forgot the street patterns. It was almost as if the people who laid these things out wanted you to get lost. She drove for a quarter of an hour down the winding lanes, courts, and terraces, flipping U-turns in circles. The voice of the President of the United States continued to whinny from the radio. The words seemed almost devoid of meaning and the rhythm of the speech was constantly broken up by outbursts of applause and cheering. The pale, desiccated prairie grass, dusted with powdery snow, reflected the moonlight through the windows of the empty houses. Many of the streets had never been finished, the asphalt would simply terminate and become a hard-packed arroyo lined with uncompleted houses, their naked studs and unconnected plumbing lines projecting into the dry air like the rib cages of dead animals.

Finally she saw some landmarks that reminded her of where she was, and her old reflexes took over, guiding her automatically through the twists and turns.

Their house sat up on a little rise at the end of a cul-de-sac, a lollipop-shaped street that broadened into a circle at the end. Their house was right at the top of the lollipop, looking down the length of the street and out over a nice view of the Rockies rising into the night sky with the lights of Denver lapping up against them.

The house shone tonight in the moonlight. The "White House." They had called it that partly because it was white, and partly because moving into it had made them feel like they white people.

It was meant ironically. Feeling like a white person had been one of Eleanor Richmond's big goals in life. She had grown up in the heart of Washington, D.C., and had often gone for weeks at a time without seeing a single white face. People would come in from other parts of the country and complain about how the system was stacked against them; the cops and the judges and the juries were all white. But in D.C., the cops and judges and juries were all black. As were the teachers and the preachers and the nuns who had educated Eleanor. She had never gotten the sense that being black singled her out in any way. In some ways that had actually made it easier for her and Harmon to settle down in a predominantly white middle-class area.

Still, moving into a white house in a suburban development in Colorado had made her feel like a pioneer on the edge of the wilderness. She had often longed to jump into the Volvo and drive back to D.C. It felt better if she joked about it, and so she called it the White House. And when her relatives from D.C. came out to visit and bum money off of them, she laughed and joked about the White House all the way from the airport, so that by the time they got there, and saw just how white it was, they were ready for it, and they didn't take her for some kind of traitor.

When she pulled into the old cul-de-sac, the White House was dead ahead, sitting up on its little hill, and it was all lit up from within. The only house within a mile that was lit up. Someone must have broken into it and turned all the power back on at the circuit panel.

Someone named Harmon.

Eleanor braked Doreen's little car to a halt, there in the handle of the little lollipop street, and sat for a couple of minutes, staring through the windshield, up the hill, at the White House full of light and good cheer.

The Volvo was not visible anywhere. But the light inside the garage was turned on. Once he'd gotten the power restored, he must have used it to open the garage door, and parked the Volvo inside, just like in the old days.

Eleanor was trying to make up her mind what she should do now. Because her husband had clearly gone crazy. Either that, or gotten so drunk that he might as well be crazy.

She was tired of having crazy relatives. Her mother had Alzheimer's. They had moved her to a much cheaper nursing home and might have to move her into the trailer any day now. She was basically crazy. Her kids were both teenagers, hence crazy by definition. Now her husband was crazy.

Eleanor Richmond was the only person in the whole family who was not crazy.

Not that she wasn't tempted.

Eventually she reasoned that, crazy or not, it wouldn't do her husband any good to wind up in jail. He might think, in his own crazy, drunk mind, that he still owned this house. But he didn't. The Resolution Trust Corporation owned it; they had taken it over from the defunct savings and loan that had foreclosed on it. Eventually the RTC would probably sell it to speculators who would come and strip out the usable wiring and carpets, or maybe just bulldoze the whole thing down to its floor slab and turn the neighborhood into a dirt-bike track or a toxic waste dump. Eleanor knew that this house was walking dead, a real estate zombie, and that it was going to be wasted. But that didn't change the fact that they didn't own it anymore and Harmon could go to jail for having broken into it.

Maybe going to jail would do Harmon some good. Shame him a little, snap him out of his depression.

But she kept saying that to herself every time something bad happened to them and it never worked; he just got more depressed and bitter. He didn't need any more shame.

She'd better go get him. Once again, Eleanor, the solid one, the noncrazy maternal figure, would bail everyone else out. Someday she would have to indulge herself and go crazy a little and let someone else bail her out. But she didn't know anyone who was up for the job.

The front door was unlocked. The house smelled funny. Maybe it had been shut up for too long, baking in the sun that poured in through the windows all day, peeling all kinds of fumes and chemicals out of the paint and the carpet and making the air stink. She left the door open.

"Harmon?" she said. Her voice echoed off every wall.

There was no answer. He was probably dead drunk in the living room.

But he was not in the living room. The only things there, the only sign that Harmon had been in the place at all, were a few tools dropped on the floor in one corner of the room, over by a little broom closet where they used to store the slide projector and the Monopoly game and the jigsaw puzzles.

The door to the broom closet was open, the tools spilled out on the floor next to it. A hammer and a crowbar. Eleanor would have known that they were Harmon's even if he had not carefully painted RICHMOND on the handle of each one, in her nail polish.

The thin strip of trim that ran around the door had been removed entirely and thrown on the floor, little nails poking up into the air. Uncovered drywall had been exposed where the piece of trim had covered it up, and Eleanor could see dents in it where Harmon had inserted the crowbar.

The door opening was lined with another piece of trim, a doorjamb with a little brass strike plate about halfway up where the latch of the door would catch. Harmon had tried to pry this jamb off.

Eleanor squatted down in the doorway and put her hand on the doorjamb. An uneven ladder of pencil and ball-point pen marks climbed up the wood. Each mark had a name and a date written next to it: Harmon Jr. - age 7, Clarice - age 4. And so on. They reached all the way up to nearly Eleanor's height; the last one was marked Harmon Jr. - age 12.

Harmon had tried to pry the jamb off and take it with him. But the wood was thin and cheap, and under the twisting force of his crowbar, it had split in half down the middle, half of it remaining nailed down to the door frame, the other half pulled halfway out, white unstained wood exposed where it had shattered.

She wondered how long Harmon had been sitting there on their broken-backed sofa in the trailer in Commerce City, his beer in his hand, meditating over this doorjamb, planning to come and take it away. Had it been eating away at him ever since they had moved out?

Clarice's birthday was next week. Maybe he intended to give this to her as a birthday present. It had great sentimental value, and it was free.

"Harmon?" she said, again, and heard it echo again off the bare walls of the house. She went to check the bedrooms, but he wasn't in any of them.

The sound of music finally drew her to the garage. Faint, tinny music was coming out of the Volvo's stereo. It was barely audible through the mud room door. She went into the garage.

Harmon was sitting in the driver's seat of the Volvo, reclined all the way back. Once she got the door open, she recognized the music: Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. Harmon's favourite. Years ago, on their first trip to Colorado, they had parked on the summit of Pike's peak and listened to this tape, loud.

She walked quietly up the flank of the Volvo and looked in the driver's window. Harmon had leaned the seat all the way back and folded up his jacket to make a little pillow on the headrest. His eyes were closed and he wasn't moving.

The keys were in the ignition, in the ON position. The tank was empty. The engine was dead. The volume on the stereo was turned all the way up. The tape had been running for hours, possibly even days, auto-reversing itself back and forth, playing the symphony over and over again, running the battery down until hardly anything came out of the speakers.

Harmon was dead. He had been dead for quite some time.

Before she did anything else she reached inside the car and pounded the garage door opener clipped to the sun visor. The big door creaked open, letting in a rush of fresh clean air and opening up a clear glittering view of the suburbanized foothills.

It was a very sensible thing to do. Eleanor Richmond did it because she was not crazy, would not allow herself to be crazy, would not allow herself to succumb to the poison gas that her husband had used to kill himself. Her kids and her mother needed her and she could not indulge herself the way Harmon had.

She did not want to look at Harmon or touch his body and so she went and sat on the front steps of the White House for a while, letting tears run down her face and shatter her clear view of the lights of Denver. She did not have any shoulder to rest her head on and so she scooted over to one end of the step and leaned against the white vinyl siding of the house, which gave a little under the weight of her head.

After a while, she walked back in through the open front door and went back into the living room. She picked up her husband's crowbar from where he had thrown it away. The floor was dented beneath it; he must have hurled it down there in a rage when the door jamb had shattered. From there he had probably gone straight to the Volvo.

Eleanor worked the point of the crowbar underneath the portion of the doorjamb that was still nailed down, and prying gently, a little at a time, moving the crowbar up and down its length, worked the jamb loose from the frame of the house. It held together okay and she knew that a little Elmer's glue would fix it right up. She would ask Doreen's boyfriend to nail it up to the wall of the trailer and then she would have Clarice and Harmon, Jr., stand against it and she would measure their height and mark their progress. They would roll their eyes and say it was stupid, but they would secretly love it.

Every few seconds, all the way through this, she remembered, with a shock, that her husband was dead.

She carried the doorjamb out and fed it in through the open window of Doreen's car. It still stuck out a little bit but it would be okay for the drive home. Living in Commerce City, watching Mexicans, she had learned that you could get away with letting just about anything hang out the windows of your car. She backed out of the driveway and turned around in the big circle and left White House beyond, driving aimlessly into the heart of her old neighborhood, looking for another house with lights in it, a house where they might have a working telephone.

PART 2. The Ride

5

Marsha Wyzniewczki's relationship with her boss had never been ceremonious. When he didn't answer for the third time, she got up from her desk, worked up a good head of steam accelerating across ten feet of office floor, and threw her full hundred and ten pounds against one of the two tall, narrow, Lincolnesque doors that separated her office from the Governor's.

A small old gray man was hunched over in the Governor's chair, in a pool of light in the dark office. Marsha had to look at him for several seconds before she was completely sure that this man was William Anthony Cozzano, the tall sturdy hero who had entered the office a few hours ago, ruddy from his afternoon jog up around Lincoln's Tomb. He had somehow been transformed into this. A wraith from the VA Hospital.

A mother's reflex took over; she groped for the wall switch, lighting up the office. "Willy?" she said, addressing him this way for the first time ever. "Willy, are you all right?"

"Call," he said.

"Call whom?"

"Goddamn it," he said, unable to remember a name. This was the first time she had ever heard him utter profanity when he knew that she was listening. "Call her."

"Call whom?"

"The three-alarm lamp scooter," he said.

Cozzano flapped his right arm, causing his whole body to bend perilously to that side, and pointed across the office at his wall of pictures. "Three-alarm lamp scooter."

Marsha couldn't tell which picture he was pointing at. Christina? The little Vietnamese girl? One of the bridesmaids? Or his daughter, Mary Catherine?

Mary Catherine was a doctor, three years out of medical school. She was a neurology resident at a big hospital in Chicago. The last time the Governor had gone to the city, he had visited her apartment and come back chuckling about one detail of her life: She spent so much time on call and slept so little that she had to have three alarm clocks by her bed.

"Mary Catherine?"

"Yes, goddamn it!"

Marsha went back to her little cockpit, where she sat all day, irradiated on three sides by video screens. Sliding a computer mouse around on the desktop, she located Mary Catherine Cozzano's name and slapped a button. She heard the computer dialing the number, a quick tuneless series of notes, like the song of an exotic bird.

"South Shore Hospital switchboard, may I help you?"

Cozzano's voice broke in before Marsha could say anything; he had picked up his extension. "The budlecker! Make the budlecker go!" Then, infuriated at himself: "No, goddamn it!"

"Excuse me?" the operator said.

"Mary Catherine Cozzano. Pager 806," Marsha said.

"Dr. Cozzano is not on call at this time. Would you like to speak to the doctor who is?"

Marsha did not understand the following words were true until she spoke them: "This is a family emergency. A medical emergency."

Then she dialed 911 on another line.

Then she went back into the Governor's office to make sure that he was comfortable in his chair. He had slumped over to one side. His right arm kept lashing out like a gaff, trying to hook on to something sturdy enough to pull his full weight, but the surface of his desk offered no purchase.

Marsha grabbed the Governor's upper left arm in both of her hands and tried to move him. But Cozzano reached across his body with his right hand and gently, firmly, pulled her hands loose. She

watched his hand for a moment, confused, then noticed that he was staring directly into her eyes.

He glanced significantly at the telephone on his desk. "Fuck me," he said. "Get the maculator!" Then he closed his eyes tight in frustration and shook his head. "No, goddamn it!"

"The maculator?"

"The old Egyptian. Glossy head. He'll fix this muggle. Get the boy of my father's acehole! Ace in the hole."

"Mel Meyer," she said.

"Yeah."

That was an easy one; Mel was the second preset on the Governor's phone, a one-button job. Marsha picked up the phone and pushed that button, with a sense of relief that made her decisive. Mel was the guy to call. She should have called him first, before calling the ambulance.

She ended up having to try a couple of numbers before she reached him on his car phone, somewhere on the streets of Chicago.

"What is it!" Mel snapped, getting things off to a typically brisk start,

"It's Marsha. The Governor has had a stroke or something."

"Oh, no!" William A. Cozzano said. "You're right. I had a stroke. That's terrible."

"When?" Mel said.

"Just now."

"Is he dead?"

"No."

"Is he in distress?"

"No."

"Who is aware of this?"

"You, me, an ambulance crew."

"Is the ambulance there?"

"Not yet."

"Listen carefully." In the background, Marsha heard honking, the squealing of tires, the dim filtered sound of other motorists shouting at Mel, their voices Dopplering wierdly as they veered and accelerated around him. He must have pulled on to the shoulder, sidewalk, or wherever else he saw clear space. Mel kept talking smoothly and without interruption. "You don't want an ambulance there. Even at night the Capitol is crawling with media jackals. Damn that glass wall!"

"But-"

"Shut up. I know you have to get him medical attention. Who's on security detail? Mack Crane?"

"Yes."

"I'll call and tell him to get Willy into the dumbwaiter. You take the stairs down to the basement - don't wait for the damn elevator, don't talk to any press - and find Rufus Bell, who's down in the boiler room, smoking Camels and waiting for the lottery numbers to come up on TV. Tell him that the Governor needs his help. Tell him to clear a path to the civil defense tunnel."

Then Mel hung up. Marsha was saying, "Civil defense?"

The Governor was smiling at Marsha with one side of his face. The other side was expressionless. "He is a smart back," he said. "No! You know what I mean. Do what he said."

The Governor's offices were separated from the rest of the capitol by a huge glass wall that completely sealed off the east wing. Just inside the glass wall was a generously sized reception area, furnished with leather chairs and davenports, where visitors waited to see the Governor or his staff. Right up against the glass was a security desk where Mack Crane or another member of the Governor's security detail was always stationed, twenty-four hours a day, keeping a sharp eye on anyone who approached from the direction of the rotunda. Mack was a plainclothes Illinois cop, bald head fringed with straight, steely hair, wearing an unfashionably wide tie over a short-sleeved shirt. By the time Marsha had made it out of the Governor's office; through her own office, and out into the reception area, Mack's phone was already ringing, and as she punched her way out through the glass doors, heading for the Rotunda, she could hear him saying, "Hi, Mel."

Rufus Bell was downstairs in his little asbestos empire, smoking unfiltered Camels and watching television on a little black-and-white set he had poised on an upended bucket, when Marsha drove her shoulder into the steel door of the boiler room. Something in her manner caused him to rise to his feet.

"This is an emergency," she said. "The Governor needs your help."

Bell flicked his cigarette into a coffee can full of water, scoring a direct hit from ten feet away, simultaneously punching the TV's off switch with a knee. Then he just stared at her and Marsha realized he was waiting for instructions.

"Is there a civil defense tunnel or something?"

By way of saying yes, Bell strode over to a big sheet of stained and lacquered plywood bolted to a wall. The plywood had dozens of cup hooks screwed into it. A key chain dangled from each cup hook. He grabbed one.

"Willy's coming down," Marsh said, she swallowed. "On the dumbwaiter."

Rufus froze solid for a long moment, then turned around and looked searchingly at Marsha.

"You need to clear a path from the dumbwaiter to the civil defense tunnel. Big enough for a stretcher."

Bell shrugged. "Shouldn't be hard," he said, exiting the room. He was a big round man with a rolling gait that looked slow, but Marsha had to hurry to keep up.

As they came into the hallway, Bell turned and held the key chain out to her, suspending it by a single one of its myriad keys, held between his thumb and forefinger. "You want me to clear that hallway, you gotta do the tunnel yourself. End of this hall, take a right, go to the very end."

Marsha had thought that she knew her way around the state house but now was beginning to feel lost and uncertain. But Bell was staring at her remorselessly, holding the key chain right up in her face, and she had to do it. She took the keys, getting a firm grip on the important one, and ran down the hallway.

"Yo!" Bell said, "you'll need this!"

She turned around to see Bell holding up a thick black rubber-coated flashlight. He clicked it on, waved it back and forth a couple of times, and underhanded it to her down thirty feet of hallway. She plucked it out of its spinning trajectory with a one-handed-grab, shattering two fingernails, and spun on her heel.

Behind her she could hear a tremendous clattering; looking back she saw Rufus beginning to shove entire file cabinets this way am that. That was all she took in before she turned down the next corridor.

It was built from several different kinds of masonry pieced together and then painted the same color, a thick glossy industrial yellow. The ceiling was obscured by bundles of heavily insulated pipes and ventilated steel conduits carrying thick black electrical cables. The corridor was narrowed by flimsy steel cabinets and racks lining the walls, stuffed with maintenance supplies, gutted Selectrics, and ancient civil defense biscuits.

The door at the end of the hall was small, heavy, and almost too dimly illuminated to see. A heavily yellowed cardboard sign was stuck to it, bearing the FALLOUT SHELTER emblem. Once it was unlocked, it took a mighty tug just to budge it. Then it opened slowly and steadily, with the momentum of a battleship, and slammed into the wall hard enough to knock off chips of the thick old yellow paint. Beyond was a circular tunnel stretching away, ruler-straight, for as far as the beam of the flashlight could penetrate It was barely high enough for her to enter without stooping. Cold air oozed out and flowed over her shins.

She aimed the beam at the floor, because her main concern at this point was to notify any vermin of her approach so that they would at least have the option of getting out of her path. Then she ducked through the low frame of the door.

Running down the tunnel, she tried to figure out which direction she must be going now. Her trip down the stairway has gotten her all spun around. She decided that she must be going north, under Monroe Street, toward the squat limestone building the former steam plant, that housed the Illinois Emergency Services and Disaster Agency.

Finally she reached the end of the tunnel. There was another massive blastproof door here, which opened using the same key; clearly Rufus Bell had been through from time to time, oiling the lock and the hinges. She threw the bolt and put her shoulder against the door, the silky filaments of her blouse snagging on the rough layers of rust and flaked paint.

But it seemed to open by itself. Brilliant light poured through. She was looking into a wide hallway in another basement some­where. Four people were staring at her in amazement: one custodian and three emergency medical technicians, fully equipped with a gurney and several big fiberglass equipment cases.

One of the EMTs, a tiny, athletic-looking young woman with a short bristly haircut, peered down the length of the tunnel. "Does that lead somewhere?" she said. "I guess it does."

The capitol only had three passenger elevators and they all opened directly on to the Rotunda, a yawning four-story-high well where privacy was pretty much out of the question. But buried in the wings of the building were large dumbwaiters used by house, senate, and gubernatorial staff to shuffle cartons of papers back and forth. They were easily large enough for a person, even a big person like Cozzano, to sit in.

Marsha led the EMTs through the basement, and into the storage room under the east wing where the Governor stored inactive files. Along the way they picked up Mack Crane, who was loitering in a corridor intersection, keeping a sharp eye in the direction of the stairs that led up to the first floor, looking for what Mel Meyer had referred to, alternately, as "jackals" and "witnesses." Marsha could not help darting one glance up the stairs. She was expecting a phalanx of photographers and video crews, poised to capture her wide-eyed expression so that they could splash it up on the front page of the Trib tomorrow. But the top of the stairs was guarded by a sentry line of orange cones warning of a WET FLOOR. Bell must have done that; while no one was really afraid of a wet floor, anyone who knew the ways of the statehouse would try to avoid walking through the middle of one of Bell's mopping projects and earning his undying enmity and noncooperation.

The dumbwaiter was stopped in the storage room, doors open.

Governor William A. Cozzano was sprawled out on the basement floor with his head and shoulders cradled in the lap of the janitor who was talking to him softly. Bell did not look up as the gurney approached. He said something to Cozzano, something about "medevac." He slipped one arm under Cozzano's shoulders and one under his knees and picked the two-hundred-fifty-pound Governor up as if he were a six-year-old.

"Just leave him there," one of the EMTs said, but Bell stepped forward and gently laid Cozzano out full length on the gurney, ready for transport.

The EMTs worked over Cozzano for a few minutes. Then they rolled him out into the corridor and back toward the civil defense tunnel. Marsha glanced up the stairs as they went by and saw the knees and feet of a nocturnal journalist heading for the first-floor men's room.

The gubernatorial stretcher, with its motorcade - the EMTs, the secretary, the cop, and the janitor - moved quickly and silently through the basement, down the tunnel, and into the basement of the building that Marsha had glimpsed earlier. No one said any-thing except for Cozzano, who said, jovially. "Why is everyone so wallpapered?"

The janitor in the other building was holding the freight elevator for them. They all rode it up to the ground floor, along a short hallway, and out through a roll-up steel door and into a parking lot where an ambulance was waiting. The cold air of the January night came through Marsha's blouse as if she were naked. She pirouetted slowly, looking around, trying to establish her bearings.

The ambulance had backed into a three-sided nook that opened out on to an empty gravel parking lot covered with gray hard-packed snow. They were in back of a one-story building of rough-hewn limestone. This building had a notch taken out of its corner, and the back wall of that notch contained the roll-up door. The building was separated by a gap of just a few feet from a much larger seven- or eight-story building whose solid, windowless back wall formed the third side of the nook.

The big building was the Illinois State Armory, which also housed the Illinois State Police. The small building from which they'd just exited was the Emergency Services and Disaster Agency, its roof studded with funny-looking antennas. Marsha, who'd been working in the capitol for twenty years, was astonished to realize these things: that the Governor of Illinois had a secret escape route, a vestige of the Cold War, a secret bolt-hole to escape from atomic attack and deliver himself into the protection of the Illinois National Guard.

She wondered how many other secrets about the capitol and the office of the Governor, and about this Governor himself, she had never learned or even suspected. She wondered why she'd never been told about these things. And she wondered how Mel Meyer had known. For Marsha the acquisition of knowledge had always been an orderly process pursued in public schools, but Mel was different, Mel came by his knowledge in mysterious ways. He didn't even have a government job, he was just the Governor's lawyer and friend, he hardly ever came to Springfield, and still he carried all the secret blueprints and phone numbers in his head.

As the EMTs were pulling the doors of the ambulance closed on Cozzano, she saw Bell standing there, staring at Cozzano through the rear windows. As the driver shifted the transmission into forward gear, the ambulance's backup lights flashed once like heat lightning and illuminated Bell's face, burning the still image into Marsha's retinas. Bell's forehead was wrinkled in the middle, his eyebrows angled upward in the center, his eyes were glistening and red. As the engine revved, he suddenly straightened up, clicked the heels of his boots together, and snapped out a salute.

Cozzano was staring back at Bell through the tiny windows in the back of the ambulance. The Governor moved his right arm, heavy with blood-pressure cuff and intravenous lines, and returned the salute. The ambulance moved forward on twin jets of steamy exhaust and angled across the parking lot, headed for the trauma center at Springfield Central Hospital, less than a mile away.

6

As soon as Dr. Mary Catherine Cozzano got on the down elevator, headed for the parking garage, she began to go through a ritual she had developed for passage through hostile territory. She hauled the strap of her purse up over her head so that it ran diagonally across her body, snatch-proof. It hung on her right hip so as not to interfere with her pager, which was clipped to her left hip. She unzipped the purse, pulled out her key chain, and clenched it in her right fist so that the keys stuck out from between her fingers like spikes on a medieval weapon. As she carried her keys in her purse, she observed no size limitations; her key chain was as sprawling and ramified as a coronary artery, branching out to include a miniature Swiss Army knife, a penlight, a magnifying glass (all freebies from drug companies), and a stainless steel police whistle. The whistle dangled on a thick length of metal rope. She got it between her thumb and index finger, ready to use. She had already made sure that she was wearing her running shoes - not high heels, not boots - and a pair of scrub pants that offered her legs freedom of movement. That was a given, because these were the only clothes anyone could tolerate on a thirty-hour shift in a sprawling hospital.

Finally, as the elevator was passing downward through the lobby level and into the subterranean parking levels, she reached into her purse and pulled out a black box that fit neatly into her left hand. It was rectangular with a bend near one end. The bent end was concave and sprouted four blunt metal prongs about a quarter of an inch long, making it look like the mouthparts of a tremendously magnified chigger. The prongs were symmetrically arranged: an

outer pair that stuck straight out from the end of the device, and an inner pair, closer together, angled toward each other as they sprouted from the concavity. When Mary Catherine found the box inside her purse, it fell naturally into her hand in such a way that her index finger was resting on a black button, just under the crook, near the prongs. Mary Catherine pulled it out of her purse, held it away from herself, and pulled the trigger.

A miniature lightning bolt, a purplish-white line of electrical discharge, popped between the two inner prongs. It created an alarming, crusty buzzing noise that seemed to penetrate deep into her head. The spark whipped and snapped in the air like a slack clothesline caught in a November wind.

She tested it like this, every day, because she was William A. Cozzano's daughter, and because her father was John Cozzano's son, and everyone in their family learned, when they were very young, not to be sloppy, not to assume, not to take anything for granted.

Then the elevator doors opened, like the opening curtain on a cheap horror film, and she was staring into a low-ceilinged cata­comb, filled with greenish, inexpensive institutional light that was hard on the eyes but did not really seem to illuminate anything. These were the tombs where doctors and nurses buried their cars while they worked. Most of the cars were shambling zombies, long since turned undead by the depredations of mobile chop shops that cruised up and down the ramps night and day.

During these trips through the catacombs, Mary Catherine liked to tell herself that her chosen speciality gave her an advantage in self-defense: she could diagnose people from a distance. By the way they walked, by the reactions on their faces, she could tell active psychotics from healthy, run-of-the-mill radio thieves.

Mary Catherine was not the kind of woman who would carry a weapon in her purse. She was not sure what kind of woman would, but certainly not her. She did it anyway. At first it had been a con­cession to her father. Ever since the death of her mother, her father's concern for her safety had become an obsession with him. When she had moved into her apartment, he drove up from Tuscola with all of his tools and spent a weekend reinforcing the deadbolts, putting bars on the windows, caging her in from the outside world. The people who lived in the apartment across the air shaft - an extended family of Brazilian immigrants - spent most of that weekend gathered in the living room, almost as if for a family portrait, staring in astonishment as the Governor of Illinois dangled halfway out of a sixth-story window sinking bolt hole after bolt hole into the brick window frames with a massive three-quarter-inch electric drill that he had borrowed from one of his farmer cousins.

The next time her birthday rolled around, Dad had given her a small, neatly wrapped box. Mary Catherine had been embarrassed and flushed with gratitude, thinking it was a necklace - and coming from Dad, it was sure to be too formidable to wear. But when she had gotten it out of the box, it turned out to be a stun gun instead. A fitting weapon for a neurologist.

Dad had never observed any limitations on his life. He saw nothing remarkable in assuming that one day he would be President of the United States. He had always assumed that Mary Catherine would feel the same way. He always told her that she could do anything she wanted with her life, and while she never doubted him, she always took it with a grain of salt. And when he first became aware that, as a woman, she was in danger in ways that he was not, and that this danger limited what she could do, he was deeply troubled. He refused to accept it for a long time. But he was starting to understand and was trying to find ways to exempt her from the regulations that society imposed on all women. Because, goddamn it (she could hear him say), it just wasn't fair. Which was all the reason he needed to do anything.

She was halfway to her car when her beeper detonated, scaring her half out of her scrubs. She had been awake or virtually awake for thirty-six hours and was running on a lean, rancid bland of caffeine and adrenaline. One reflex told her to grab the beeper and push the button that would make it shut up. The other reflex told her to pull the trigger on her stun gun and get it up into the solar plexus of any bad guys who might be in her vicinity. The reflexes got a little confused and the two little black boxes collided, the stun gun and the beeper, and the stun gun won; the beeper went silent.

(a) This was no time to stand still and figure out the problem and (b) as of thirty minutes ago, she was no longer on call. This had been a mistake on the part of the operator. She had paged the wrong doctor. Sooner or later, they would figure it out, they always did. Right now, Dr. Cozzano needed to get home and sleep.

When she got back to her apartment, her answering machine was taking down a message from a man whose voice she did not recognize. She just caught the tail end of it as she was coming through the door: "... condition is stable and he's under the personal care of Dr. Sipes, who of course is a very fine neurologist, Thanks. Bye."

She recognized the name Sipes; he was on the faculty of the Central Illinois University College of Medicine and he showed up at all the conferences. Apparently this call had come from down-state, where some colleague had a question about something. Didn't sound urgent; she would call him back later. She turned down the volume on the answering machine, locked all of the locks that Dad had installed to keep her safe, fed the cat, and went into the bathroom.

There was a mirror in the bathroom. Mary Catherine had not looked in a mirror for something like a day and a half. She took this opportunity to see if she still recognized herself.

Her father was the Governor of Illinois, which meant that this face of hers showed up on television and in the newspapers with some regularity. She had to look respectable without being dowdy. She was also a doctor, so she had to look smart and professional. She was a resident, so she had no money and couldn't spend any time at all worrying about how she looked. And she was the product of a small town in Illinois and had to go back there every couple of weeks and not seem uppity and strange to her old Girl Scout chums.

Once you left the city limits of Chicago you were in Big Hair Territory. Mary Catherine had been the only girl in her high school who had escaped the syndrome. She had extremely thick, black, luxuriant Italian hair with a natural wave that, during the humid summers, turned into a curl. She would have preferred to shave her head for the duration of the residency. Dad was never happy unless she let it grow down to her waist. In compromise, she had settled on a cut that let it hang just above her shoulders.

She showered and climbed into bed with wet hair. A few bits of mail had arrived, notes and cards from friends and family members in other parts of the country, and she leafed through them by her bedside lamp. Her eyes could not trace the handwriting, and the contents penetrated her brain only feebly. It was a waste of time. She reached to turn off the ringer on her telephone, but discovered that it was already turned off. She had probably turned it off the last time she had attempted to get some sleep, whenever that was. The time was 9:15 p.m. She set her three alarm clocks for five o'clock in the morning. She tossed the pager and the stun gun on to her bedside table. The pager no longer responded when she pushed the TEST button. Apparently the stun gun had fried its microchips.

When she woke up, the bedside clocks all read within a few minutes of 9:45 and someone was pounding rhythmically on her front door with a heavy object. For a moment she thought she had overslept and that it was 9:45 in the morning, but then she realized that it was dark outside and her hair was still wet.

It sounded like someone was trying to break in with a sledge-hammer. She pulled on jeans and an ILLINI sweatshirt, went to the door, and peered out through the peephole.

It was a cop. The wide-angle view in the peephole made his body very large and his head very small, amplifying his already cop-like appearance. He had a hug L-shaped billy club in one hand and was patiently ramming the butt of it into her door. Standing behind the cop was a man in a trench coat with his hands in his pockets. He was shorter than the cop, so that the peephole magnified his face rather than his body. It was Mel Meyer.

"Okay!" she shouted. "I'm up." She sounded cheerful and ready for anything, even though she was neither. Women of the prairie did not bitch, nag, or whine.

Then she thought: Why is Mel here?

Dad had as many lawyers as a mechanic had wrenches. He embodied a large business, a fortune, a few charities, and the state of Illinois, and lawyers came with all of those things. They were always around. Always calling Dad, taking him to dinner, coming over to his house with papers to sign. Sometimes she couldn't tell which were his friends, which were his business associates, and which were actually representing him. To Mary Catherine, lawyers had always seemed as common as air, the taxi drivers, bag boys, and janitors of the world of affairs.

But if all those other lawyers were William A. Cozzano's army, then Mel Meyer was the stiletto strapped to his ankle. Mel was the eschatological counselor of the Cozzano clan, drafter of wills, executor of estates, godfather of children, and if the whole world turned to decadence and strife one day and civilization collapsed, and Dad were trapped on a hilltop surrounded by the heathen, Mel would shoot himself in the head so that Dad could use his corpse as a rampart. He was small, bald, rumply, tired-looking, lizard-eyed, and didn't talk much, because he was always thinking everything out two hundred years into the future.

And now he was standing in her hallway, with a cop, quiet and motionless as a fire hydrant, hands in the pockets of his trench coat, staring at the wallpaper, thinking.

She undid the locks and opened the door. The cop stepped aside, clearing a wide space between Mel and Mary Catherine. "Your pa needs you," Mel said. "I got a chopper. Let's go."

Springfield Central had started out as your basic Big Old Brick Hospital with a central tower flanked symmetrically by two slightly shorter wings. Half a dozen newer wings, pavilions, sky bridges, and parking ramps had been plugged into it since then, so that looking at it from the window of the chopper, Mary Catherine could see it was the kind of hospital where you spent all your time wandering around lost. The roofs were mostly flat tar and pea-gravel, totally dark at this time of night, though in areas that were perpetually shaded, patches of snow glowed faintly blue under the starlight. But the roof of one of the old, original wings was a patch of high noon in the sea of midnight. It bore a red square with a white Swiss cross, a red letter H in the center of the cross, and some white block numerals up in one corner. Well off to the side, new doors - electrically powered slabs of glass - had been cut into the side of the old building's central tower.

It made her uneasy. This wasn't Dad's style. As the governor of one of the biggest states in the union, William A. Cozzano could have lived like a sultan. But he didn't. He drove his own car and he did his own oil changes, lying flat on his back in the driveway of their house in Tuscola in the middle of the winter while frostbitten media crews photographed him in the act.

Zooming around in choppers gave him no thrill. It just reminded him of Vietnam. He took this to the point where he probably wouldn't have known how to get a chopper if he had needed one. Which is why he had to have people like Mel, people who knew the extent of his power and how to use it.

"We have limited information," Mel said, on the way down. "He suffered an episode of some kind in his office, shortly after eight o'clock. He is fine and his vital signs are totally stable. They managed to extract him from the state-house without drawing a whole lot of attention, so if we play this thing right we may be able to get through it without any leaks to the media."

In other circumstances, Mary Catherine might have resented Mel's talk of media leaks at a time like this. But that was his job. And this kind of thing was important to Dad. It was probably the same thing that Dad was worrying about, right now.

If he was awake. If he was still capable of worrying.

"I can't figure out what the problem would be," Mary Catherine said.

"They're thinking stroke," Mel said.

"He's not old enough. He's not fat. Not diabetic. Doesn't smoke. His cholesterol level is through the floor. There's no reason he should have a stroke." Just when she had herself reassured, she remembered the tail end of the message she'd heard on her answer-ing machine, the one that mentioned Sipes. The neurologist. For the first time it occurred to her that the message might have been about her father. She felt a sick panicky impulse, a claustrophobic urge to throw the helicopter door open and jump out. Mel shrugged. "We could burn up the phone lines getting more info. But it wouldn't help him. And it would just create more potential leaks. So just try to take it easy, because in a few minutes we'll know for sure."

The chopper made an annoyingly gradual soft descent on to the hospital roof. Mary Catherine had a nice view of the capitol dome out her window, but tonight it just looked malevolent, like a sinister antenna rising out of the prairie to pick up emanations from distant sources of power. It was a tall capitol but not a big one. Its smallness always emphasized, to Mary Catherine, its unnatural concentration of influence.

Springfield liked to bill itself as "The City Lincoln Loved." Mel always referred to it as "The City Lincoln Left." Mel and Mary Catherine had to sit inside for a moment and let the momentum of the rotor spin down a little. When she got the thumbs-up from the pilot, Mary Catherine put her hand on her hair and rolled out on to the white cross in her running shoes. She had thrown a trench coat on over her sweatshirt and jeans, and the buckle whipped back and forth on the end of its belt; the wintry air, traveling at hurricane speed under the rotor blades, had a wind chill factor somewhere down around absolute zero. She didn't stop running until she had passed through the wide automatic glass doors and into the quiet warmth of the corridor that led to the central elevator shafts.

Mel was right behind her. An elevator was already up and waiting for them, doors open. It was a wide-mouth, industrial-strength lift big enough to take a gurney and a whole posse of medical personnel. A man was waiting inside, middle-aged, dressed in a white coat thrown over a BEARS sweatshirt. This implied that he had been called into the hospital on short notice. It was Dr. Sipes, the neurologist.

She was used to being in hospitals. But suddenly the reality hit her. "Oh, God," she said, and slumped against the elevator's pitiless stainless steel wall.

"What's going on?" Mel said, watching Mary Catherine's reaction, looking at Dr. Sipes through slitted eyes.

"Dr. Sipes," Sipes said.

"Mel Meyer. What's going on?"

"I'm a neurologist," Sipes explained.

Mel looked searchingly at Mary Catherine's face for a moment and figured it out. "Oh. Gotcha."

Sipes's key chain was dangling from a key switch on the control panel. Sipes reached for it.

"Hang on a sec," Mel said. Since he had emerged from the chopper his head had been swinging back and forth like that of a Secret Service agent, checking out the surroundings. "Let's just have a chat before we go down to some lower floor where I assume that things will be in a state of hysteria."

Sipes blinked and smiled thinly, more out of surprise than amusement, he wasn't expecting folksy humor at this stage in the proceedings. "Fair enough. The Governor said that I should be expecting you."

"Oh. So he is talking?"

This was a simple enough question, and the fact that Sipes hesitated before answering told Mary Catherine as much as a CAT scan.

"He's not aphasic, is he?" she asked.

"He is aphasic," Sipes said.

"And in English this means?" Mel said.

"He has some problems speaking."

Mary Catherine put one hand over her face, as if she had a terrible headache, which she didn't. This kept getting worse. Dad really had suffered a stroke. A bad one.

Mel just processed the information unemotionally. "Are these problems things that would be obviously noticeable to a layman?"

"I would say so, yes. He has trouble finding the right words, and sometimes makes words up that don't exist."

"A common phenomenon among politicians," Mel said, "but not for Willy. So he's not going to be doing any interviews anytime soon." "He's intellectually coherent. He just has trouble putting ideas into words."

"But he told you to expect me." "He said that a back would be coming." "A back?"

"Word substitution. Common among aphasics." Sipes looked at Mary Catherine. "I assume that he doesn't have a living grandmother?"

"His grandmothers are dead. Why?"

"He said that his grandmother would be coming too, and that she was a scooter from Daley. Which means Chicago." "So 'grandmother' means 'daughter' and 'scooter-'" "He refers to me and all the other physicians as scooters," Sipes said.

"Oy, fuck me," Mel said. "This is gonna be a problem." Mary Catherine had a certain skill for putting bad things out of her mind so that they would not cloud her judgement. She had been trained that way by her father and had gotten a brutal refresher course during high school, when her mother had fallen ill and died of leukemia. She stood up straight, squared her shoulders, blinked her eyes. "I want to know everything," she said. "This Chinese water torture stuff is going to kill me."

"Very well," Sipes said, and reached for his key chain. The elevator fell.

All that Mary Catherine was doing, really, was coming to the hospital to visit a sick relative. The chairman of the neurology department did not have to guide her personally through the hospital. She was getting this treatment, she knew, because she was the Governor's daughter. It was one of those weird things that happened to you all the time when you were the daughter of William A. Cozzano. The important thing was not to get used to this kind of treatment, not to expect it. To remember that it could be taken away at any time.

If she could make it all the way through her father's political career without ever forgetting this, she'd be okay.

Dad had a private room, on a quiet floor full of private rooms, with an Illinois State Patrolman stationed outside it.

"Frank," Mel said, "how's the knee?"

"Hey, Mel," the trooper said, reached around his body, and shoved the door open.

"Change into civvies, will ya?" Mel said.

When Sipes led Mel and Mary Catherine inside, Dad was asleep. He looked normal, if somewhat deflated. Sipes had already warned them that the left side of his face was paralyzed, but it did not show any visible sagging, yet.

"Oh, Dad," she said quietly, and her face scrunched up and tears started pouring down her face. Mel turned toward her, as if he'd been expecting this, and opened his arms wide. He was two inches shorter than Mary Catherine. She put her face down into the epaulet of his trench coat and cried. Sipes stood uncertainly, awkwardly, checking his wristwatch once or twice.

She let it go on for a couple of minutes. Then she made it stop. "So much for getting that out of the way," she said, trying to make it into a joke. Mel was gentlemanly enough to grin and chuckle halfheartedly. Sipes kept his face turned away from her.

Mary Catherine was one of those people that everyone naturally liked. People who knew her in med school had tended to assume that she would go into a more touchy-feely speciality like family practice or pediatrics. She had surprised them all by picking neurology instead. Mary Catherine liked to surprise people, it was another habit she had picked up congenitally.

Neurology was a funny speciality. Unlike neurosurgery, which was all drills and saws and bloody knives, neurology was pure detective work. Neurologists learned to observe funny little tics in patients' behavior - things that laymen might never notice - and mentally trace the faulty connections back to the brain. They were good at figuring out what was wrong with people. But usually it was little more than a theoretical exercise, because there was no cure for most neurological problems. Consequently, neurologists tended to be cynical, sardonic, remote, with a penchant for dark humor. Sipes was a classic example, except that he appeared to have no sense of humor at all.

Mary Catherine was trying to make a personal crusade of bring­ing more humanity to the profession. But standing by her stricken father's bedside crying her eyes out was not what she'd had in mind. "Why is he so out of it?" Mel said.

''Stroke is a major shock to the system. His body isn't used to this. Plus, we put him on a number of medications that, taken together, slow him down, make him drowsy. It's good for him to sleep right now."

"Mary Catherine told me that guys of his age, in good shape, shouldn't have strokes." "That's correct," Sipes said. "So why did he have one?"

"Usually stroke happens when you are old and the arteries to your brain are narrowed by deposits. This patient's arteries are in good shape. But a big blood clot got loose in his system." "Damn," Mary Catherine said, "it was the mitral valve prolapse, wasn't it?"

"Probably," Sipes said.

"Whoa, whoa!" Mel said, "what is this? I never heard about this."

"You never heard about it because it's a trivial problem. Most people don't know they have it and don't care." "What is it?"

Mary Catherine said, "It's a defect in the valve between the atrium and the ventricle on the left side of your heart. Makes a whooshing noise. But it has no effect on performance, which is why Dad was able to join the Marines and play football." "Okay," Mel said.

"The reason it makes a whooshing noise is that it creates a pattern of turbulent flow inside the heart," Sipes said. "In some cases, this turbulent flow can develop into a sort of stagnant back-water. It's possible for blood clots to form there. That's probably what happened. A clot formed inside the heart, eventually got large enough to be caught up in the normal flow of blood, and shot up his carotid artery into his brain."

"Jesus," Mel said. He sounded almost disgusted that something so prosaic could fell the Governor. "Why didn't this happen to him twenty years ago?"

"Could have," Sipes said. "It's purely a chance thing. A bolt from the blue."

"Could it happen again?"

"Sure. But we're keeping him on blood thinners at the moment, so it can't happen right now."

Mel stood there nodding at Sipes while he said this. Then Mel kept nodding for a minute or so, just staring off into space.

"I have eight hundred million phone calls to make," Mel said. "Let's get down to business. List for me all of the other human beings in the world who know the information that you just gave me. And I don't want him being wheeled around this hospital for everyone to look at. He stays in this room until we make further arrangements. Okay?"

"Okay, I'll pass that along to the others-"

"Don't bother, I'll do it," Mel said.

It was like the old days in Tuscola, when a hot, portentous afternoon would suddenly turn dark and purple and the air would be torn by tornado sirens and the police cars would cruise up and down the streets warning everyone to take cover. Dad was always there, guiding the kids and the dogs down into the tornado cellar, checking to see that the barbecue and lawn chairs and garbage can lids were stowed away, telling them funny stories while the cellar door above their heads pocked from the impacts of baseball-sized hailstones. Now, something even worse was happening. And Dad was sleeping through it.

And Mom wasn't around anymore. And there was her brother James. But he was just her brother. James wasn't any stronger than she was. Probably less so. Mary Catherine was in charge of the Cozzano family.

Sipes and Mary Catherine ended up in a dark, quiet room in front of a high-powered Calyx computer system with two huge monitors, one color and one black-and-white. It was a system for viewing medical imagery of all kinds - X-rays, CAT scans, and everything else. This hospital had had them for several years already. The hospital where Mary Catherine worked probably wouldn't get one until sometime in the next decade. Mary Catherine had used them before, so as soon as Dr. Sipes set her up with access privileges, she was able to get started.

After a while, Mel somehow tracked her down and sat next to her without saying anything. Something about the darkness of the room made people hush.

Mary Catherine used a trackball and a set of menus and control windows to open up a large color window on the screen. "They put his head in a magnet and baloney-sliced his brain," she said. "Come again?" Mel said. It was funny to see him non-plussed. "Did a series of CAT scans. Had the computer integrate them into a three-dimensional model of Dad's melon, which makes it a lot easier to visualize which parts of his brain got gorked out."

A brain materialized in the window on the computer screen, three-dimensional, rendered in shades of gray. "Is this the way doctors talk?" Mel said, fascinated. "Yes," Mary Catherine said, "when lawyers aren't around, that is. Let me change the palette; we can use a false-color scheme to highlight the bad parts," she said, whipping down another menu.

The brain suddenly bloomed with color. Most of it was now in shades of red and pink, fading down toward white, but small portions of it showed up blue. "When lawyers and family members are present," Mary Catherine said, "we say that the blue parts were damaged by the stroke and have a slim chance of ever recovering their normal function." "And amongst medical colleagues?" "We say that those parts of the brain are toast. Croaked. Kaput.

Not coming back." "I see," Mel said. "Been taking a stroll down memory lane," Mary Catherine said.

"Check this out." She played with the menus for a moment and another window opened up, a huge one filling most of the black-and-white screen. It was a chest X-ray. "See that?" she said, tracing a crooked rib with her fingertip.

"Bears-Packers, 1972," Mel said. "I remember when they carried him off the field. I lost a thousand bucks on that fucking game."

Mary Catherine laughed. "Serves you right," she said. She closed the window with the chest X-ray. Then she used the trackball to rotate the image of the brain back and forth in different ways to reveal selected areas. "This stroked area accounts for the paralysis and this small one here is responsible for his aphasia. In the old days we had to figure this stuff out just by talking to the patient and watching the way he moved."

"I detect from your tone of voice that you think this is all basically superficial crap," Mel said.

Mary Catherine just turned toward him and smiled a little bit.

"I like video games too," Mel said, "but let's talk seriously for a moment here."

"Dad's mixed dominant, which is good," Mary Catherine said.

"Meaning?"

"He does some things with his right hand and others with his left. Neither side of the brain predominates. People like that recover better from strokes."

Mel raised his eyebrows. "That's good news."

"Recovery from this kind of insult is extremely hard to predict. Most people hardly get better at all. Some recover quite well. We may see changes over the course of the next couple of weeks that will tell us which way he's going to go."

"A couple of weeks," Mel said. He was clearly relieved to have a specific number, a time frame to deal with. "You got it."

"Guess what?" Mel said to the Cozzanos the morning after the stroke. It was six a.m. None of them had slept except for the Governor, who was under the influence of various drugs. James Cozzano had arrived shortly after midnight, driving his Miata in from South Bend, Indiana, where he was a graduate student in the political science department. He and Mary Catherine had spent the whole night sitting around in the Executive Mansion, which was nice, but not exactly home. Mary Catherine had tried to sleep in bed and been unable to. She had put on her clothes, sat down in a chair to talk to James, and fallen dead asleep for four hours. James just watched TV. Mel had spent the same time elsewhere, on the telephone, waking people up.

Now they were all together in the same room. The Governor's eyes were open, but he wasn't saying much. When he tried to talk, the wrong words came out, and he got angry. "What?" Mary Catherine finally said.

Mel looked William A. Cozzano in the eye. "You're running for president."

Cozzano rolled his eyes. "You swebber putter," he said. Mary Catherine gave Mel a wary, knowing look, and waited for an explanation.

James got flustered. "Are you crazy? This is no time for him to be launching a campaign. Why haven't I heard about this?"

His father was watching him out of the corner of his eye. "Don't squelch," he said, "it's a million fudd. Goddamn it!"

"I spent the whole night putting together a campaign com­mittee," Mel said.

"You lie," Cozzano said.

"Okay," Mel admitted, "I put together a campaign committee a long time ago, just in case you changed your mind and decided to run. All I did last night was wake them up and piss them off." "What's the scam here?" Mary Catherine said. Mel sucked his teeth and looked at Mary Catherine indulgently. "You know, 'scam' is just a Yiddishized pronunciation of'scheme' - a much nobler word meaning 'plan.' So let's not be invidious. Let's call it a plan instead."

"Mel," Mary Catherine said, "what's the scam?" Cozzano and Mel looked soberly at each other and then cracked up.

"If you turn on that TV in a couple of hours," Mel said, "you will see the Governor's press secretary releasing a statement, which I wrote on my laptop in the lobby of this hospital and faxed to him an hour ago. In a nutshell, what it says is this: in the light of the extremely serious and, in the Governor's view, irresponsible state­ments made by the President last night, the Governor has decided to take another look at the idea of running for president - because clearly the country has gone adrift and needs new leadership. So he has cleared his appointment calendar for the next two weeks and is going to closet himself in Tuscola, with his advisers, and formulate a plan to throw his hat into the ring."

"So all the media will go to Tuscola," James said. "I would guess so," Mel said. "But Dad's not in Tuscola." Mel shrugged as if this were a minor annoyance. "Sipes says he's transportable. We'll use the chopper. More private and presidential as hell."

Cozzano chuckled. "Good backing," he said. "We'll go to the buckyball."

"What's the point?" James said. He actually shouted it. Suddenly he had become upset. "Dad's had a stroke. Can't you see that? He's sick. How long do you think you can hide it?" "A couple of weeks," Mel said. "Why bother?" James said. "Is there any reason for all this subterfuge? Or are you just doing it for the thrill of playing the game?"

"People my age get their thrills by having good bowel move­ments, not by playing games," Mel said. "I'm doing it because we don't yet know the full extent of the damage. We don't know how much Willy is going to recover in the next couple of weeks." "But sooner or later ..." "Sooner or later, we'll have to come out and say he's had a stroke," Mel said, "and then the presidential bid is stillborn. But it's better to have a nice little planned stroke at home, while trying to lead the country, than a big ugly surprising one while you're picking your nose in the statehouse, don't you think?" "I don't know," James said, shrugging. "Is it?"

Mel swiveled his head around to look directly at James. His face bore an expression of surprise. He was able to mask his emotions before they developed into disappointment or contempt.

Everyone had always assumed that James would one day develop from a bright boy into a wise man, but it hadn't happened yet. Like many sons of great and powerful men, he was still trapped in a larval stage. If he hadn't been the son of the Governor, he probably would have developed into one of those small-town letter-of-the­law types that Mel found so tiresome.

But he was the son of the Governor. Mel accepted that. He didn't say what was on his mind: James, don't be a sap.

"James," Mary Catherine said, speaking so quietly that she could barely be heard across the room, "don't be a sap."

James turned and gave Mary Catherine the helpless, angry look of a little brother who has just had his cowlick pulled by his big sister.

Mel and the Governor locked eyes across the bedspread.

"Hut one!" Cozzano said.

7

Gangadhar V.R.J.V.V. Radhakrishnan, M.D., Ph.D., had not cracked a skull in seventy-nine days and he was not happy about it. Even the shaven-headed thugs stamping out license plates ten miles down the road at the New Mexico State Men's Reformatory would get rusty without their daily quota of practice on the license-plate stamping machine. For a neurosurgeon, eleven weeks without pressing the madly vibrating blade of the bone saw against a freshly peeled human skull was intolerable.

In order to crack a skull he had to get to a decent hospital. In order to reach a decent hospital from here, he had to use the Elton State University airplane. But every time he needed it, the football coach had taken it out on a recruiting trip to L.A. or Houston. This was in direct violation of Dr. Radhakrishnan's contract with Elton State, which stated that he would have access to the airplane as needed.

The only person who could help him was Dr. Artaxerxes Jackman, the president of Elton State University, and Jackman had to be approached in the right way. Jackman had a Ph.D. in education and higher administration. It was almost criminal fraud to call him a doctor, but in the academic sense, a doctor he was. Dr. Radhakrishnan had not spent most of his life in his native India without figuring out that important positions are quite often filled by underserving swine, who must be deferred to in any case.

His own father was a case in point. Forty years ago, about the time Gangadhar had been born, Jagdish Radhakrishnan had been a rising young idealist in the Nehru administration. That very idealism had led to an appointment on the Railway Corruption Enquiry Committee of 1953. Jagdish had carried out his respon­sibilities zealously, refusing to pull his punches even when it became evident that he was getting close to many a high-ranking official. He found himself summarily transferred to a low post in the Sheet Mica Price Controller's organisation, where he had lan­guished ever since, living only for the achievements of his two sons: Arun, the golden boy, the firstborn son, now a member of Parliament, and to a lesser extent, Gangadhar.

Gangadhar V.R.J.V.V. Radhakrishnan knew that the faculty of Elton State University was, in the academic world, roughly equivalent to the Sheet Mica Price Controller's Organisation, and that if he ever wanted to get out of this place he would have show more discretion - more savvy - less boneheaded idealism than his father had back in the 1950s. For half a year he had been trying, diplomatically and politely, to get in for a face-to-face with Dr. Jackman, but there meeting kept getting postponed.

Before he even veered into the parking lot of the Coover biotechnology pavilion, blood balloons began to detonate on the windshield of his full-sized, one-ton, six-wheel-drive Chevy pickup truck. He kept driving even though he could no longer see through the windshield. If he was lucky, he might run over an animal rights activist and then claim it was an accident. The truck was not in a mood to slow down; it was heavily laden with fifty-pound sacks of Purina Monkey Chow. He had just paid for the monkey chow himself, with his own money, down at the grain elevator - the closest thing there was to a skyscraper in Elton, a white tubular obelisk sticking up above the railroad tracks on the edge of town. He had talked to the grinning windburned Nazis, given them his money, endured their snickering at his accent and their remarks about his heavy winter coat.

"So what do you do with this stuff? Fry it up or just eat it cold?" one of them had said, as they were piling the monkey chow into his truck.

"I feed it to brain-damaged lower primates," Dr. Radhakrishnan had said. "Would you like a sample?"

The one thing they valued him for - that gave him potential status as a human being in their eyes - was his monster truck: 454 cubic inches of V-8 power, double wheels on the rear axle, a thick black roll bar brandishing great mesh-covered Stalag 17 searchlights that could pick out a shrew on a rock in a midnight windstorm across two miles of chaparral. He had traded in a BMW for this coarse and ungainly machine halfway through his first winter here, almost two years ago, when he found out that the ultimate driving machine simply did not go in a six-foot snowdrift.

The double-edged windshield wipers smeared blood across the windshield in gory arcs, giving him a partial view of the loading dock. It wasn't real blood, of course. After the first few attacks, they had decided it was politically incorrect to use the real stuff and they had switched to Karo syrup with red dye in it. In the cold February air, it congealed on contact. Dr. Radhakrishnan preferred the real blood; it was easier to wash off.

A dozen of his grad students and lab techs were waiting for him around back at the loading dock. Dr. Radhakrishnan pulled up to it and left the motor running. They jumped into the back like a commando team and formed a human chain, passing the fifty-pound sacks of monkey chow up across the dock and into the freight elevator. Radhakrishnan had a total of fifteen grad students: four Japanese, two Chinese, three Korean, one Indonesian, three Indian, one Pakistani, and one American. They had learned to work together well at times such as this, even the American.

He pulled his empty truck around into the parking lot. Dr. Radhakrishnan had a reserved parking space near the entrance. Right now half a dozen activists were occupying it with their bodies, staging a die-in. Most of them were just doing it in their Levi's and Timberland's, but the star of the show was a person in a gorilla suit with a big steel colander over his head with a pair of jumper cables clamped on to it. The gorilla spazzed out and died grandly as Dr. Radhakrishnan's blood-soaked four-by-four cruised past in low gear, a shattered balloon fluttering from the radio antenna, and parked in an unreserved spot farther from the door.

They thought they were going to force Dr. Radhakrishnan to change his ways by making him feel bad. They thought that the way to make him feel bad was to make him feel unliked. They were desperately wrong on both counts.

He shoved a magnetically coded ID card into a slot, punched in a secret code, and the door opened for him. This new facility had been built securely, because they knew that the animal rights people would try to find a way in. They didn't have a chance; they were like raccoons trying to break into a missile silo.

The top floor belonged to Radhakrishnan and his crew. He had to punch in more numbers to get out of the elevator lobby. Then he smelled home. It had the sharp disinfectant smell of a doctor's office with a low undertone of barnyard.

A baboon was sitting in a stainless steel chair in the Procedure Room, wrists and ankles loosely taped in place. The baboon was anesthetized and did not need to be restrained; otherwise, the tape wouldn't have held him. All it did was fix him in a convenient position.

The entire top of the baboon's skull had been removed to expose the brain. Park and Toyoda were under the hood, as it were, working on the baboon's electrical system. Toyoda had his hands in there, maneuvering a narrow probe with a miniature video camera on the end of it. The output of the video camera was splashed up on a big-screen Trinitron. Nearly inaudible high-pitched ticking and whistling sounds emerged from the headphones of his Walkman; he was listening to some particularly noxious form of American music.

Park held a retractor with one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. Both of them ignored the baboon and kept their eyes on the TV set. It was providing live coverage of the interior spaces of the baboon's brain: a murkey universe of gray mush with the occasional branching network of blood vessels.

"A little bit left," Park suggested. The camera swung in that direction and suddenly there was something different, something with hard, straight edges, embedded in the brain tissue. It did not seem to have been dropped into a hole, though; it seemed as though the brain had grown around it, like a tree growing around a fence post. The object was a neutral, milky white, with a serial number stamped into the top. Any layman coming in off the street would have identified the substance as teflon. It was just translucent enough that one could make out, inside the teflon shell, a sort of squared-off sunburst pattern, like the rising sun flag of the Imperial Japanese Navy, etched in silver against a neutral gray background. At the center of that sunburst was a tiny square region that contained several hundred thousand microscopic transistors.

But neither Park nor Toyoda nor Dr. Radhakrishnan looked at that part of it. They were all looking at the interface - the boundary between the sharp edge of the teflon casing and the brain tissue, with its infinite, organic watershed system of capillaries. It looked good: no swelling, no necrosis, no gap between the baboon and the microchip.

"A keeper," Toyoda said, grinning, pronouncing this newly acquired bit of American slang with great precision.

"Bingo," Park said.

"Which baboon is this?" Dr. Radhakrishnan said.

"Number twenty-three," Toyoda said. "We implanted three weeks ago."

"How long has he been off the antirejection meds?"

"One week."

"Looks like he'll do well," Dr. Radhakrishnan said. "I suppose we should go ahead and give him a name."

"Okay," Park said as he slurped uncertainly at his lukewarm java. "What do you want to call him?"

"Let's call him Mr. President," Dr. Radhakrishnan said.

Two men were waiting for Dr. Radhakrishnan in front of his office. It was unusual, this early in the morning; Dr. Radhakrishnan's secretary wouldn't even be here for another half hour. One of the men was Dr. Artaxerxes Jackman, of all people, looking somewhat grumpy and astonished. The other man was a stranger, a man in his forties with sandy blond hair. He was wearing the best suit that Dr. Radhakrishnan had ever seen west of the Mississippi, a charcoal-gray number with widely spaced stripes, sort of a City of London number. Both men stood up as Dr. Radhakrishnan entered the room.

"Dr. Radhakrishnan," Jackman said, "no one was here so we just figured we'd set up and wait for you. I want you to meet Mr. Salvador here."

"Dr. Radhakrishnan, it's a pleasure and an honor," Salvador said, extending his hand. He wore no jewelry except for cufflinks; when he extended his arm, just the right amount of cuff - plain, basic white - protruded from the sleeve of his jacket. He did not go in for the crushing American style of handshake. His accident was definitely not American either, but beyond that, it was as untrace­able as a ransom note.

"You are up bright and early," Dr. Radhakrishnan said, ushering Mr. Salvador into his office. Jackman had already departed, slowly and reluctantly, casting glances over his shoulder.

"No earlier than you, Dr. Radhakrishnan, and certainly no brighter," Mr. Salvador said. "Jet lag would not allow me to sleep later and so I thought I would get an early start."

Dr. Radhakrishnan handed him some coffee. Salvador held the mug out in front of him for a moment, examining it like a freshly excavated amphora, as though he had never seen coffee served in anything other than a cup with a saucer. "Comanches," Salvador paid, reading the mug.

"That is the name of the football team associated with this institution," Dr. Radhakrishnan said.

"Ah, yes, football," Salvador said, his memory jogged. He was showing all the signs of a man who had just flown in from some other hemisphere and who was trying to get cued into the local culture. "That's right, this must be high football territory. The pilot told me that we are on mountain time here. Is that correct?" "Yes. Two hours behind New York, one ahead of L.A." "I didn't know that such a time zone existed until this morning." "Neither did I, until I came here."

Salvador took a sip of coffee and sat forward, all business. "Well, I would love to indulge my weakness for endless small talk, but it would be wrong to waste your time, and it is rude for me to sit here being mysterious. I understand that you are the world's best brain surgeon."

"That is flattering but not exactly true. I could not even aspire to that tide unless I devoted myself to doing procedures."

"But instead you have chosen to devote your career to research."

"Yes."

"It is a common career choice among the very finest medical minds. There's more of a challenge in trying something new, isn't there?"

"In general, yes."

"Now, it is my understanding - and please correct me if I say something stupid - that you are developing a process to help persons who have suffered brain damage."

"Certain types of brain damage only," Dr. Radhakrishnan said, trying to be discouragingly cautious; but Mr. Salvador was not even slightly deterred.

"As I understand it you implant some kind of device in the damaged part of the brain. It connects itself to the brain on one side and to the nerves on the other, taking the place of damaged tissue."

"That is correct."

"Does it work with aphasia?"

"Pardon me?"

"A speech impediment - caused, say, by a stroke?"

Dr. Radhakrishnan was badly thrown off stride. "I know what aphasia is," he said, "but we do our work on baboons. Baboons can't talk."

"Suppose they could?"

"Speculatively, it would depend on the extent and the type of the damage."

"Dr. Radhakrishnan, I would appreciate it very much if you would listen to a tape for me," Salvador said, pulling a microcassette recorder out of his pocket.

"A tape of what?"

"Of a friend of mine who recently became ill. He suffered a stroke in his office. Now, as luck would have it, this took place while he was dictating a letter on a tape machine."

"Mr. Salvador, excuse me, but what are you getting at here?" Dr. Radhakrishnan said.

"Nothing really," Salvador said, good-humored and unruffled as if this were an entirely normal procedure.

"Are you about to ask me for some kind of a medical opinion?" "Yes."

Radhakrishnan had a canned speech cued up, about how the doctor/patient relationship was extremely solemn and how he could not even dream of diagnosing a patient without hours of examination and the all-important paperwork. But something stopped him from saying it.

It might have been Mr. Salvador's unpretentious and offhand manner. It might have been his personal elegance, his obvious status as a member of the upper class, which made it painful to bring up such banal issues. And it might have been the fact that he had been escorted here personally by Jackman, who would not have bothered to do so unless Mr. Salvador were very important. Mr. Salvador took Dr. Radhakrishnan's silence as permission. "The first voice you will hear will be that of my friend's secretary, who discovered him after the stroke." And he started the tape rolling. The sound quality was poor but the words were clear enough.

"Willy? Willy, are you all right?" The secretary sounded hushed, almost awed.

"Call." This command did not sound finished; the man wanted to say, "Call someone," but he could not summon forth the name. "Call whom?"

"Goddamn it, call her!" The man's voice was deep, his enunciation flawless. "Call whom?"

"The three-alarm lamp scooter." "Mary Catherine?" "Yes, goddamn it!"

"That's all there is," Mr. Salvador said, switching off the machine. Dr. Radhakrishnan raised his eyebrows and took a deep breath. "Well, based on this kind of evidence, it's difficult-"

"Yes, yes, yes," Mr. Salvador said, now sounding a bit annoyed, "it's hard for you to speculate and you can't say anything on the record and all that. I understand your position, doctor. But I attempting to engage you in a purely abstract discussion. Perhaps it would have been better if we had met over dinner, rather than in such a formal setting. We could arrange that, if it would help to get you in the right frame of mind."

Radhakrishnan felt miserably stupid. "That would be difficult to arrange in Elton," he said, "unless you are very fond of chili."

Mr. Salvador laughed. It sounded forced. But it was nice to make the effort.

"Speaking very abstractly, then," Dr. Radhakrishnan said, "if the stroke hit his frontal lobes, he may very well have personality changes, which my therapy could not fix. If that part of his brain was spared, then the cursing probably reflects frustration. Your friend, I would wager, is a successful and powerful man, and you imagine how such a man would feel if he could not even say simple sentences."

"Yes, that puts it in a new light."

"But I can't say much more than that without more data."

"Understood." Then, offhandedly, as if asking for directions to the men's room, Salvador said: "Can you fix the aphasia, then? Assuming your off-the-cuff diagnosis is correct."

"Mr. Salvador, I hardly know where to begin."

Mr. Salvador took out a cigar, a mahogany baseball bat of a thing, and scalped it with a tiny pocket guillotine. "Begin at the beginning," he suggested. "Care for a cigar?"

"To begin with," Dr. Radhakrishnan said, accepting the cigar, "there are ethical questions that entirely rule our performing an experimental procedure on a human subject. So far we've only done this on baboons."

"Let us do a little thought experiment in which we set aside, for the time being, the ethical dimension," Mr. Salvador said. "Then what?"

"Well, if a doctor were willing to do this, and the patient fully understood what he was getting into, we would first have to build the biochips. In order to do this we would have to take a biopsy a few weeks ahead of time, that is, take an actual sample of the patient's brain tissue, then genetically reengineer the nerve cells - in and of itself, hardly a trivial operation - and grow them in vitro until we had enough."

"You do that here?"

"We have an arrangement with a biotech firm in Seattle."

"Which one, Cytech or Genomics?"

"Genomics."

"What is their role?"

"They implant the desired chromosome and then culture the cells in vitro."

"They grow them in a tank," Mr. Salvador translated.

"Yes."

"How long does that phase last?"

"A couple of weeks usually. Cell culture is dodgy. Once we had gotten the cultured cells back from Seattle, we would fabricate the biochips."

"How long does that take?" Mr. Salvador was obsessed with time.

"A few days. Then we would proceed to the implantation."

"The actual operation."

"Yes."

"Tell me about that."

"We identify the dead portions of the brain and remove them cryosurgically. It's rather like a dentist drilling out a cavity, cutting away damaged material until he hits a sound part of the tooth."

Mr. Salvador winced exquisitely.

"When we do this on baboons, we do it in a specially con­structed operating room here that is not sterile. It is not even minimally fit for humans. So in order to do this operation on a human, it would be necessary to build a specially designed operating theater from scratch. The operating room would prob­ably cost more than this entire building in which we are sitting."

This last statement was intended to scare Mr. Salvador off, but it seemed only to bore him. "Have you ever got to the point of drawing up plans and specifications for such a facility?"

"Yes, in a speculative way." Anyone who knew the first thing about grantsmanship always had that kind of thing lying around, to demonstrate the need for far greater amounts of money.

"May I take a copy with me?"

"The plans are on disk. You'll need a fairly powerful Calyx system just to open them up."

"Is that some sort of computer thing? Calyx?"

"Yes. A parallel operating system."

"It is something that one could buy?"

"Yes, of course."

"Who makes it?"

"It's an open system. So there are many such machines on the market - mostly aimed at engineers and scientists."

"Who makes the best sort of Calyx machine?"

"Well, it was invented by Kevin Tice, of course."

Mr. Salvador smiled. "Ah, yes. Mr. Tice. Pacific Netware. Marin Country. Superb. I shall see if Mr. Tice can supply us with a nice machine that will run his Calyx operating system."

Dr. Radhakrishnan assumed that Mr. Salvador was employing a bit of synecdoche here. But he was not entirely sure. "If you do get access to a Calyx machine, with the proper CAD/CAM software, these disks will run on it."

"Then I would be delighted to take a disk with me, with your permission," Mr. Salvador said. Without further discussing that issue of permission, he continued, "Now, what happens after the operation?"

"Once the implantation had been performed, if the patient did not die in the process, there would be a period of a few weeks in which we would keep him on antirejection meds and monitor him closely in order to make sure that his body did not reject the implant. Assuming it worked, he would then have to be retrained. The patient tries to move the paralyzed part of his body. If the movement is correct, then we instruct the chip to remember the pathway taken by the signals from the brain into the nerve. If it is incorrect, we instruct the chip to block that path. Gradually, the good paths get reinforced and the bad ones get blocked."

"How do you instruct the chip? How do you give it feed-back, as it were, once it is implanted inside the patient's head?"

"It includes a miniaturized radio receiver. We have a transmitter that simply broadcasts the instructions directly into the patient's skull."

"Fascinating. Utterly fascinating," Mr. Salvador said, sincerely enough. "And what is the range of this transmission?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Well, how far away from the transmitter can the patient be?"

Dr. Radhakrishnan smiled the same smile he had used with Jackman. "You misconstrue me," he said. "We do not use radio transmission because we need to talk to the patient's biochip from a distance. We use it because this enables us to communicate with the biochip without using an actual wire through the skull into the brain.

"I see, of course," Mr. Salvador said dismissively. "But radio is radio, isn't it?"

Dr. Radhakrishnan smiled and nodded. He could not find any way to disagree with the statement "radio is radio."

8

Aaron Green faked it for a whole week, throwing his IMIPREM into the trunk of his rented Dynasty every day and hawking his wares up and down the length of Wilshire Boulevard. Then he got up one morning, rummaged through his briefcase, emptied out the pocket where he stuffed people's business cards, and pulled one out. Plain black ink on white paper: CY OGLE -President - Ogle Data Research, Inc.

Ogle was the guy. The man who had taken one quick look at his IMIPREM, in the least auspicious circumstances, and recognized its value. A guy as smart as Ogle didn't need any sales pitch. No fancy presentations.

Aaron had known ever since their conversation on the plane that he would eventually make this phone call. But he had forced himself to stick to the original plan for a week anyway.

Enough of that. The card listed offices in Falls Church, Virginia, and Oakland, California. Hardly auspicious. Aaron dialed the number in Oakland, steeling himself for a lengthy round of telephone tag.

"Hello?" a man's voice said.

"Hello?" Aaron said, caught off guard. He had been expecting a secretary.

"Who's this?"

"Excuse me," Aaron said, "I was trying to reach-"

"Mr. Green!" the man said, and Aaron recognized him as Cy Ogle himself. "How are you doing down there in Holl-ee-wood? Are you having a fabulous time?"

Aaron laughed. He had assumed, on the plane, that Ogle must have been drunk. But now he sounded the same. Either Ogle was drunk all the time, or never.

"I don't think I'll be putting my handprints in cement anytime soon."

"Had many interesting conversations with those big media moguls?" Aaron decided to test Cy Ogle. "They're all teflon golems."

"And all of your scientific arguments just slide right off their high-tech, nonstick surface," Ogle said without skipping a beat.

'What's going on?" Aaron asked. "You answering your own telephone now?"

"Yup."

"It's just that I figured, being president of your own company and all, you'd have a secretary or something." "I do," Ogle said. "But she's a real good secretary, so I'm not going to waste her time having her answer the phone.

"Well," Aaron said, "I don't want to waste your time. You must be busy."

"I'm busy pushing on the gas pedal and keeping this old gas-guzzler between the white lines," Ogle said.

"Oh. You're driving?"

"Yeah. Going to Sacramento to sell the Governor a bill of goods."

"Oh. Well as long as you and I were on the same coast-"

"You thought we should get together about your IMIPREM."

"Exactly," Aaron said. He was pleased that Ogle still remem­bered the acronym.

"Let me ask you one question," Ogle said. "Could you make it small?"

"The IMIPREM? What do you mean?"

"It's big now. Bigger than a breadbox, as we used to say. Got a big old power supply built into it, I would guess. Is there any intrinsic reason you couldn't miniaturize it? Make it portable? Say, Walkman sized, or even smaller, like wristwatch sized?"

"It would be a major project-"

"Stop trying to be a business executive," Ogle said. "I don't want your opinion of this from a major project point of view. I want you to do what you do best. Now, a V-8 engine can't be small; it won't work. But a calculator can be small. Is the IMIPREM a V-8 engine or a calculator?"

"A calculator."

"Done. Now stop worrying about all this business shit. Go to Disneyland."

"Huh?"

"Or the Universal Studios tour. Or something. I won't be back until tonight."

"Okay."

"This afternoon, before traffic gets screwed up, go to LAX and take a shuttle up to San Francisco and a car will meet you. Bring everything."

"Gotcha."

"We got a new project underway, since I last talked to you, that you are going to just love," Cy Ogle said. "You are just going to love it."

Then Ogle hung up the phone.

Aaron considered showing up in the full set of Mickey Mouse ears, just to prove that he had in fact gone to Disneyland. But he decided at the last minute that this would be just a little bit too off-the-wall. So he opted for a simple, oversized, 100 percent cotton Goofy T-shirt. A T-shirt was more conservative than a set of ears, and Aaron had a feeling that Cyrus Rutherford Ogle would relate better, somehow, to Goofy.

When he came off the plane in San Francisco, a man was standing by the gate holding a hand-lettered sign that said A. GREEN. The driver seemed to read everything in his face, and ventured into the torrent of deplaning businessmen to take Aaron's IMIPREM case out of his hand before Aaron had even identified himself.

The driver was named Mike. He wasn't a uniformed chauffeur or anything like that, just a normal-looking black kid of eighteen or twenty, wearing a black T-shirt. Quiet, courteous, and efficient.

After a brief wait by the baggage carousel, Mike led him out to a navy-blue Ford Taurus with an oversized engine and lots of antennas (innocuous but powerful; correct but not ostentatious; comfortable but not decadent) and drove him up the freeway to the Bay Bridge and across to Oakland, surging from lane to lane (decisive but not reckless). They exited shortly after getting into Oakland and then cruised down into a semirenovated downtown area and from there into a not-so-renovated area on the fringe of the waterfront warehouse district.

A number of the buildings down here were well on their way to being trashed, but as usual in California, there were a few nice ones that stood out, not so much because they'd been perfectly main­tained, but because they had been well-designed to begin with.

One of the best was a big old Art Deco Cadillac dealership, a glass-walled flatiron of a building set in the angle of two diverging avenues. The ground floor was huge and wide open, with ceilings that looked some twenty-five feet high, completely wrapped in tinted glass. That was the showroom; behind it, farther back into the block, was garage space. Above this ground floor were four or five additional floors of office space. On top of the building, the word CADILLAC was written large in orange neon script, looming over the intersection in letters that must have stood twenty feet high. Beneath that, mounted high on the prow of the building, was a big clock, a full story high, its numbers and hands outlined in more neon. The neon worked but the clock didn't.

Most of the big windows were in surprisingly good shape. A few of them had fist-sized holes in them, backed up with sheets of plywood, and the wide, double glass doors that had once beckoned would-be Cadillac buyers into the dealership had been rebuilt in plywood and painted black. The upper floors of the building looked empty. A few yellowed windowshades hung askew. It wasn't until Mike pulled the Taurus up in front of the black plywood doors, and Aaron saw the street number spray-painted across them in orange, that he realized this address matched the one printed on Cy Ogle's business card.

Once Aaron entered the showroom, his eyes adjusted well enough to see that it was mostly empty. No desks, no Cadillacs. He pulled the door shut behind him and latched it using a big, old-fashioned hook and eye.

The formerly high-gloss floor of the showroom was covered, patchily, with swaths of bleak off-brown indoor-outdoor carpeting, and the occasional half-unrolled length of battered and scarred gray foam rubber. A gridwork of black iron pipes hung down below the ceiling, and a few dozen theatrical spotlights were clamped on to the pipes here and there.

Other light fixtures were affixed to tall, telescoping poles mounted on tripods. The tops of these devices had big white umbrellas on them to serve as reflectors; the effect was that of a sparse field of gigantic sunflowers. Heavy black electrical cables, bundled together with gray tape, snaked all over the floor.

It was a stage. And the stage had props, scattered around irration­ally: a couple of heavy, impressive wooden desks. Plastic plants. Several bookshelves loaded with books. But as Aaron found when he looked at one of these, it was fake. There were no books on the shelves. What looked like a line of books seen on edge was a hollow plastic shell. The entire bookshelf weighed all of about twenty pounds.

There were some muffled clunking noises, and some lights came on at one end of the room. Aaron could only see about half of the showroom floor from here, the rest of it had been blocked off by flimsy partitions.

Finally he made out the streamlined pear shape of Cyrus Rutherford Ogle, standing next to a gray steel circuit-breaker box bolted to the wall, clunking lights on and off.

"Goofy," Ogle said, "my favourite."

"Oh. If I'd know, I would have brought you a souvenir."

"I get a souvenir every time I meet with one of my clients, haw haw haw," Ogle said. "Come on back, my offices are back here, such as they are."

"Interesting building," Aaron said.

"We figured we'd leave the big CADILLAC up on the roof." Ogle said, "to attract Republicans."

Aaron walked toward the back of the showroom, picking his way over cables and rolls of carpet padding.

"You might wonder why a man who has been described as a cross between Machiavelli and Zeffirelli would hang out in Oakland. Why not Sacramento, where the politicians are, or L.A., where all the media scum hang out?"

"The question had crossed my mind," Aaron said.

"It's a tug of war. Closer I am to Sacramento, the better it is for the politicians. Closer I am to L.A., the better it is for the creative talent."

"You're close to Sacramento. So I guess the politicians win."

"They do not win, but they predominate. See, media people have no scruples. They will go anywhere. Politicians have no scruples either. But they like to act as though they do. And it is beneath their sense of artificial dignity to go all the way to L.A. because they still think that I am just a huckster and it makes them think that they are groveling to the false gods."

Ogle turned his back on Aaron and led him through a maze of partitions.

"So why not set yourself up in Sacramento, if media people will anywhere?" Aaron said, strolling after him, looking around.

"Media people will go anywhere, but I won't. I won't go to Sacramento because it is a dried-up shithole. And San Fran is too damn expensive. So here I am, the best place I could ever be."

They were approaching some kind of an elaborate construction, a room within a room. It was a three-dimensional webwork of two-by-fours surrounding and supporting a curved wall. An old-fashioned, lath-and-plaster wall.

One side of the construct had been slid away so that Aaron could see inside. The room as a whole was elliptical in shape, now split open like a cracked egg.

Ogle noticed his curiosity and gestured at it. "Go on in," he said, "Nicest room in this whole place."

Aaron sidestepped the unadorned beams of the wooden framing and passed through the gap into the oval room.

There was a nice desk in here. It was an office. An oval office. It was the Oval Office.

Aaron had seen the real Oval Office in the White House once when his high-school band went to Washington, D.C. And this was the same. If the two halves were slid back together, it would be an exact replica.

"It's perfect," he whispered.

"On TV it's perfect," Ogle said, ambling into the room. "On film, it's just pretty good. Good enough for the yokels, anyway."

"Why would you need something like this?"

Ogle tapped the big leather swivel chair with the palm of his hand, spinning it around toward him, and fell into it. He leaned the seat back and put his feet up on the presidential desk. "Ever hear of the Rose Garden strategy?"

"Yeah, vaguely."

"Well, the White House is a busy place, what with all of those tour groups traipsing in and out, and as I said, most of the media types are here in Cal. Sometimes it's more convenient to pursue the Rose Garden strategy right here in Oakland."

"I didn't know you operated at that level," Aaron said. "I didn't know you worked for presidential candidates."

"Son," Ogle said, "I work for emperors."

"In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam."

Ogle had broken a six-pack out of a junky old refrigerator behind the "Oval Office" and set up the cans on the presidential desk. Aaron had pulled up another chair and now both of them had their feet up on the desk and beers in their hands.

"So what's it about now?" Aaron said.

"Scrutiny. We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media," Ogle said. "The President is the ultimate public figure and must stand up under ultimate scrutiny; he is like a man stretched out on a rack in the public square in some medieval shithole of a town, undergoing the rigors of the Inquisition. Like the medieval trial by ordeal, the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are deceptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead of drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like the Roman haruspex who foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces but by groping through the steaming guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidate's fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and counting the number of times he blinks his eyes in a minute, deconstructing his use of eye contact, monitoring his gesticulations - whether his hands are held open or closed, toward or away from the camera, spread open forthcomingly or clenched like grasping claws.

"I paint a depressing picture here. But we, you and I, are like the literate monks who nurtured the flickering flame of Greek rationality through the Dark Ages, remaining underground, know-ing each other by secret signs and code words, meeting in cellars and thickets to exchange our dangerous and subversive ideas. We do not have the strength to change the minds of the illiterate multitude. But we do have the wit to exploit their foolishness, to familiarize ourselves with their stunted thought patterns, and to use that knowledge to manipulate them toward the goals that we all know are, quote, right and true, unquote. Have you ever been on TV, Aaron?" "Just incidentally."

"How did you think that you looked?"

"Not very good. Actually I was kind of shocked by how strange I looked."

"Your eyes looked as if they were bulging out of your head, did they not?"

"Exactly. How did you know that?" "The gamma curve of a video camera determines its response to light," Cy Ogle said. "If the curve were straight, then dim things would look dim and bright things bright, just as they do in reality, and as they do, more or less, on any decent film stock. But because the gamma curve is not a straight line, dim things tend to look muddy and black, while bright things tend to glare and overload; the only things that look halfway proper are in the middle. Now, you have dark eyes, and they are deeply set in your skull, so that they tend to be in shadow. By contrast, the whites of your eyes are intensely bright. If you knew what I know, you would keep them fixed straight ahead in their sockets when you were on television, exposing as little of the white as possible. But because you are not versed in this subject, you swivel your eyes around as you look at different things, and when you do, the white part predominates and it jumps out of the screen because of the gamma curve; your eyes look like bulging white globes set in a muddy dark background." "Is this the kind of thing that you teach to politicians?" "Just a sample," Ogle said. "Gee, it's really a shame that-" "That our political system revolves around such trivial matters. Aaron, please do not waste my time and yours by voicing the obvious." "Sorry."

"That's how it is, and how it will be until high-definition television becomes the norm." "Then what will happen?"

"All of the politicians currently in power will be voted out of office and we will have a completely new power structure. Because high-definition television has a flat gamma curve and higher resolution, and people who look good on today's television will look bad on HDTV and voters will respond accordingly. Their oversized pores will be visible, the red veins in their noses from drinking too much, the artificiality of their TV-friendly hairdos will make them all look, on HDTV, like country-and-western singers. A new generation of politicians will take over and they will all look like movie stars, because HDTV will be a great deal like film, and movie stars know how to look good on film."

"Does any of this relate to me, or are we just speaking in the abstract here?" Aaron said.

Cy Ogle rotated his beer back and forth between the palms of his hands, as if attempting to start a fire on the tabletop.

"A human being cannot withstand the scrutiny given to a presidential candidate, any more than a human being could survive the medieval trial by fire, in which he was forced to walk barefoot across hot coals."

"But people did survive those trials, didn't they?" "Ever taken a fire-walking course?" "No. But I've heard they exist."

"Anyone can walk barefoot across hot coals. But you have to do it right. There's a trick to it. If you know the trick, you can survive. Now, back in medieval times, some people got lucky and happened to stumble across this trick, and they made it. The rest failed. It was therefore an essentially random process, hence irrational. But if they had had fire-walking seminars in the Dark Ages, anyone could have done it.

"The same thing used to apply to the modern trial by ordeal. Abe Lincoln would never have been elected to anything, because random genetic chance gave him a user-unfriendly face. But as a rational person I can learn all of the little tricks and teach them to my friends, eliminating the random, hence irrational elements from the modern trial by ordeal. I have the knowledge to guide a presidential candidate through his trial in this, the Age of Scrutiny." "What kinds of tricks?"

Ogle shrugged. "Some are very simple. Don't wear herringbone patterns on TV because they will create a moire pattern. But some of them are - and I do not use this term in a pejorative sense - fiendish. That's where you come in."

"I gather you want to use the IMIPREM to monitor people's reactions to political debates, or something."

"Don't ever say IMIPREM again. I hate the word," Ogle said. "It's a clumsy high-tech name. It's the worst trade name everinvented. Right now, your device is going to get subsumed into a larger group of technologies. It is going to become one very important element in a large and extremely complicated technological system. The name for that system is PIPER. Which stands for poll instantaneous processing, evaluation, and response."

"You asked me if I could make it small enough to be portable," Aaron said.

"That I did."

"You want to have your poll subjects carry these things around with them. You want to monitor their reactions to the campaign in real time. That's poll instantaneous processing evaluation. And evaluation must mean that you're going to feed all the data into your computers so that you can analyze and evaluate the incoming data as fast as it arrives."

"You are very perceptive," Ogle said.

"How about response?"

"How about it?"

"I understand the instantaneous processing and evaluation. But how can you respond to a poll instantaneously?"

"As I said," Ogle said, "your device will be only a small part of a large system."

"I understand that. But I'm asking-"

"Similarly, you, Aaron, will be only a small part of a large organization. Not the leading man anymore. A small price to pay for financial security, wouldn't you agree?"

"Yes, I'm just wondering-"

"One of your responsibilities, as a part of this large team, will be to use your head a little bit and not try to delve into matters that are remote from your own little sphere. You can't understand everything."

"Oh."

"Only I, Cyrus Rutherford Ogle, can understand everything."

"I was just asking out of pure curiosity."

"What it this the Age of, Aaron?"

"Scrutiny."

"Guess what is going to happen to you and your company when you become part of the PIPER project?"

"We will get scrutinized."

"Guess what is going to happen, then, if you insist on asking infelicitous questions, out of pure curiosity?"

"I will get roasted alive on hot coals."

"Along with me and everyone else involved in PIPER, including my clients."

"Say no more, I will be discreet."

"Good."

"I'm just trying to figure out what my responsibilities will be in PIPER."

"To work with our chip people and miniaturize your device. I have already made an appointment with some clever fellows at Pacific Netware, up in Marin County. We will go up there tomorrow and meet with them, like medieval monks gathering in a remote orchard, and we will build high the flame of, quote, rationality, unquote."

9

Tuscola in late morning was silent except for the whistles of hundred-car freight trains thundering north-south along the Illinois Central or east-west on the B&O, and the occasional distant blatting noise of a truck downshifting on the highway. Cold winter sunlight was slanting in through the beveled-glass windows surrounding the front door, forming a spray of little rainbows on the aging shag carpet that covered the living room floor. Cozzanos had always placed a premium on warmth over exquisite taste and so they had shag carpet. William A. Cozzano had known for a long time that there was good oak flooring under there and had been resolving, for the last twenty years, to peel up the carpet and sand it and refinish it. It was one of those things that would wait until his retirement.

But he wouldn't be able to do it now. There was no way he could handle a big floor sander. He would have to pay someone to do the work for him. He had always done his own work on his own house, even when it meant waiting until he had a free weekend.

The street was made of red brick. So was the sidewalk. The bricks were heaved up from place to place by the roots of the big oak trees in the front yard. In other spots they were gradually sinking into the lawn. Kids from the afternoon kindergarten class were ambling down the sidewalk on their way to the Everett Dirksen Elementary School two blocks away, which had been retrofitted into a former hospital. They took no notice of the house. Older kids, who could read the words THE CozzanoS on the little sign hanging on the lamppost in the front yard, always stared and pointed, but the kindergartners didn't. Cozzano recognized a grandnephew twice removed and tried to wave, but his arm didn't work.

"Goddamn it," he said.

When he moved his tongue, a wave of drool crested over his lower lip and ran out the left side of his mouth. He felt it running in a thin stream down on to his chin.

Patricia came back into the room, of course, just in time to get a good look at this. She was a local girl, former babysitter to James and Mary Catherine, had worked in Peoria as a nurse for some years, and was now back home in Tuscola, working as a babysitter again. This time for William. Before the stroke, she had treated William Cozzano with awe and deference.

"Whoops, did we have a little accident there?" she said. "Let's just wipe that right up." She took a diaper out of her pocket and ran it up Cozzano's chin, a brisk uppercut. "Now, here's your coffee - decaf, of course, and pills. Lots of little pills."

"What are those pickles?" Cozzano said.

"I'm sorry, William, what did you say?"

He pointed to the little plastic cup that Patricia had set down next to him, filled with colourful circles and oblongs.

Patricia heaved a big sigh, letting him know that she'd rather he didn't ask such questions. "Blood pressure, anticlotting, heart stimulation, elimination, breathing, and then of course some vitamins."

Cozzano closed his eyes and shook his head. Until two weeks ago he had never taken anything other than vitamin C and aspirin.

"I put some skim milk in your coffee," Patricia said.

"I take it purple," Cozzano said.

Patricia beamed. "You mean you take it black?"

"Yes, goddamn it."

"It's just a little hot, William, so I wanted to cool it down a bit so you wouldn't burn your mouth when you took your medicine."

"Don't call me that. I'm the coach," Cozzano said. Then he closed his eyes and shook his head in frustration.

"Of course you are, William," she said in a buttery voice, and put the little cup of pills into his right hand. "Now, down the hatch!"

Cozzano did not want to take the pills, merely because he did not want to give Patricia satisfaction in any way. But at some level he knew that was puerile. So he tossed the pills into his mouth. Patricia took the cup from his hand and gave him the coffee, which was tepid and beige. Cozzano had gotten in the habit of drinking black full-roast coffee, and the only kind available around here was the sour greenish grocery-store variety. He lifted the mug to his lips and forced down a couple of big, awful swallows, feeling the pills crowd together in his throat and stick halfway down his esophagus. He would rather leave them stuck there than drink any more of that small-town coffee.

"Very good!" Patricia said, "I can see you have a knack for this." Cozzano was accustomed to being a superman and now he was being praised by a Big Hair Girl for his ability to take pills. "Would you like to watch a little TV?" Patricia said. "Yes," he said. Anything to get her out of the room. "What channel?" Why didn't she just give him the remote control? Cozzano heaved a big sigh. He wanted to watch channel 10, CNBC. In his condition, one of the few things Cozzano could do was manage the family's investments. And in the economic chaos that had been unleashed by the President's State of the Union address, they needed a lot of management.

"Five million," he said. "No, goddamn it!" "Well, sometimes it seems like this cable TV has about five million channels, but I don't think I can do that!" Patricia said in a high, inflated tone, her I'm-making-a-joke voice. "Did you mean to say channel five?"

"No!" he said. "Twice that." "Two?"

"No! Three squared plus one. Six plus four. The square root of one hundred," he said. Why didn't she just give him the remote control?

"Oh, here's a news program. How's that?" Patricia said. She had hit one of the network stations. It was a little one-minute news break at the top of the hour, between soap operas.

"Yes," he said.

"Here's the remote control in case you change your mind," she aid, and left it on the table next to him.

Cozzano sat and watched the little news break. It was totally inconsequential: presidential candidates cavorting around Iowa in a series of staged media events. The caucuses were in a week and a half.

Cozzano could have won the caucuses without lifting a finger. People in Iowa loved him, they knew he was a small-town boy. Anyone who lived in the eastern part of that state saw him on TV all the time. All he had to do was pick up a phone and get nominated. Looking at the candidates on TV, he was tempted to do just that and put an end to all of this nonsense.

Senators and governors were out in the snow, picking up baby livestock, milking cows, standing in schoolyards wrapped up in heavy overcoats, tossing footballs to red-faced blond kids. Cozzano chortled as he watched Norman Fowler, Jr., billionaire high-tech twit, walking across the hard-frozen stubble of a cornfield in eight-hundred-dollar shoes. The wind chill was thirty below zero and these guys were standing out on the prairie without hats. That said everything about their fitness to be president.

Cozzano's family had always told him he ought to run for president one day. It sounded like a nice idea, bandied across a dinner table after a couple of glasses of wine. In practice it would be ugly and hellish. Knowing this, he had never seriously con­sidered the idea. He had known for some time that Mel had quietly organized a shadow campaign committee and laid the groundwork. That was Mel's job, as a lawyer, he was supposed to anticipate things.

Of course, now that Cozzano had had a stroke and couldn't run, he wanted to be President worse than anything. He could make a phone call and a few hours later a chartered campaign plane would be waiting for him at the airport in Champaign, and suddenly literature and campaign videos would be piled up in heaps all over the United States. Mel could make it happen. And then Patricia would wheel him up on to the plane, drooling for the cameras.

This was the hardest phase of recovering from the stroke. Cozzano had not yet readjusted his expectations of life. When his high expectations collided with reality, it hurt like hell.

The news break metamorphosed into a commercial for cold medicine. Then the anchor person came back on to tell America when the next news break would be. And then a new program started up: Candid Video Blind Date.

Cozzano was so disgusted that he could not change the channel fast enough. It was as if this tawdry program would cause him physical damage if he watched it for more than ten seconds.

The remote control was on the table to his right, on the good side of his body. He reached over for it, but she had put it a little too far back on the table; the heel of his hand could touch it but his fingers couldn't. He tried to screw his arm around into a kind of self-induced hammerlock, but in his disgust he was doing it so hastily that he just ended up knocking it farther back on the table. It shot backward, flew off the table, and buried itself in the shag carpet. Now it was stuck between the table and a bin full of old newspapers: a two-week accumulation of the Trib, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, none of which he would ever read.

He couldn't reach the damn thing. He would have to ask Patricia for help.

On the screen, the hysterical applause of the crowd had subsided and the host was warming them up with a few jokes. The humor was crudely sexual, the kind of thing that would embarrass even a ninth grade boy, but the crowd was eating it up: in a series of reaction shots, Big Hair Girls and fat middle-aged women and California surfer types jackknifed in their seats, mouths gaping in narcotic glee. The game show host grinned devilishly into the camera.

"Goddamn it!" Cozzano said.

Patricia was washing some dishes in the kitchen and had the water going full blast, she couldn't hear him.

He didn't want Patricia to hear him. He didn't want to beg Patricia to come into the room and change the channel on the TV for him. He couldn't stand it.

He couldn't stand this TV program either. William A. Cozzano was watching Candid Video Blind Date. Across town, John and Guiseppe and Guillermo were turning over in their graves. All of a sudden tears came to his eyes. It happened without warning. He hadn't cried since the stroke. Suddenly he was sobbing, tears running down his face and dripping from his jaw on to his blanket. He hoped to God that Patricia didn't come in. He had to stop crying. This wouldn't do. This was too pathetic, Cozzano took a few deep breaths and got it under control. For some reason, the most important thing in the world to him was that Patricia not find out that he had been crying. Sitting there in his wheelchair, trying not to look at the television set, Cozzano let his eye wander around the room, trying to concentrate on something else.

In the far end of the living room, a pair of heavy sliding doors led into a small den. Cozzano had never used it for much. It had a small rol1-top desk where he balanced his checkbook. A beautiful antique gun case stood against one wall. Like all of the other furniture in Cozzano's house it had been made out of hardwood by people who knew what they were doing back in the nineteenth century. There was more solid wood in one piece of this furniture than you would find in a whole house nowadays. The top half of the gun case was a cabinet for long weapons, closed off by a pair of beveled-glass doors with a heavy brass lock. A skeleton key projected from, the keyhole. Cozzano had half a dozen shotguns and two rifles in there: all of his father's and grandfather's guns, plus a few that he had picked up during his life. There was a pump shotgun that he had used in Vietnam, an ugly, cheap, scarred monstrosity that spoke volumes about the nature of that war. Cozzano kept it in there as a reality check. It made a nice contrast between the fancy guns, the ornate collector's items that various rich and important sycophants had given him.

Above and below the long weapons, a few handguns hung on pegs. The bottom half of the gun cabinet consisted entirely of small drawers with ornately carved fronts where he kept his ammunition, oil, rags, and other ballistic miscellanea.

Sitting in the next room in his wheelchair, Cozzano tried a little experiment. He reached up into the air with his right hand, seeing how high he could get. He was pretty sure that he could reach high enough to turn the skeleton key on the gun cabinet doors. And if not, he could always haul himself up out of his wheelchair for a few moments and carry all his weight on his right leg. The cabinet was massive and stable and he could probably use it to pull himself up. So he could probably get the doors open. He could pull out one of the guns. It would probably make the most sense to use one of the handguns, because the long weapons were all enormous and heavy and would be awkward to maneuver with only one hand. The .357 Magnum. That was the one to use. He knew he had ammunition for it, stored in the upper right-hand drawer, easy to reach. He would pull the pin that held the cylinder in place and let it fall open into his hand. Then he would drop it into his lap, letting it rest on the blanket between his thighs. He would grope in the drawer and pull out a handful of rounds. He would insert a few of these into the cylinder - one would suffice - and then snap it back into place. He would rotate the cylinder into position to make sure that one of the loaded chambers was next up.

Then what? Given the power of the weapon, it was likely that the bullet would come flying out the far side of his head and hit something else. There was an elementary school nearby and he could not take any chances.

The answer was right there: across the den, opposite to the gun case, was a heavy oak bookcase.

Cozzano couldn't see it from here. He reached down and hit the joystick attached to the right arm of his wheelchair. A whining noise came out of the little electric motor and he began to move forward. Cozzano had to do a little bit of back-and-forth to get himself free of the living room furniture, then he swung around back of the sofa and into the den. He spun the wheelchair around in the middle of the den and backed himself up to the wall next to the bookcase.

It was perfect. The bullet would emerge from his head, hit the side of the bookcase, and if it penetrated that inch of hardwood, would go right into the back cover of the first volume in a commemorative edition of the complete works of Mark Twain. No bullet in the world could make it all the way through Mark Twain.

So freedom was within reach. Now he just had to think it though.

Suicide would void his life insurance policies. That was a minus. But that didn't matter so much; his wife was already dead and the his kids could support themselves. In fact, his kids didn't need to work, they had trust funds.

His body would be discovered by Patricia. That was a plus. He would not want to put a family member through that kind of trauma. It was a good bet that his brains would be splattered all over the room. Patricia was a medical professional who would be psychologically equipped to handle this, and Cozzano felt that the experience would be good for her. It might make her into a little less of a sugary lightweight.

He wondered if he ought to leave some kind of a note. His rolltop desk was right there. He decided against it. It would look pathetic, written with his wrong hand. Better for him to be remembered for what he had done before his stroke. For anyone who knew him, Candid Video Blind Date running on his TV set was suicide note enough.

Besides, Patricia might come in and discover him writing it. Then, he knew, they would take away the guns and anything else that he might use to hurt himself. They would shoot him full of drugs and mess with his brain.

And maybe they would be right. Maybe suicide was a stupid idea, Of course it wasn't a stupid idea. Suicide was a noble thing when done in the right circumstances. It was the act of a warrior, Cozzano was about to fall on his sword to spare himself further humiliation.

And now was the best time to do it. Before his spirit was broken by the drool on his chin and by the numbing onslaught of daytime television, before his feeble new image was discovered by the media harpies and broadcast to the world.

The doctors had said that as time went on, he might have additional strokes. This meant he might become even more pathetic, incapable of taking his own life.

Cozzano had never been sick. Cozzano had always known that barring the odd drunk driver or tornado, he was going to live until he was in his eighties.

Decades. Decades of this hell. Of watching Candid Video Blind Date. Of looking at that horrendous shag carpet and wishing he was man enough to handle a big floor sander. It was unimaginable. Cozzano hit the joystick and rolled across the room to the gun cabinet.

There was a sharp rapping noise. Someone was knocking on the window.

Cozzano turned the wheelchair halfway around and looked. It was Mel Meyer, standing out on the porch, waving to him.

10

Mel Meyer saw some boys on the shoulder of the interstate checking the tie-downs on a flatbed truck carrying a piece of farm machinery. He pulled into the left lane to give them a safe berth, and as he shot past them he realized that the boys were about sixty and forty years old respectively. They only looked like boys because, on this cold February day, they were wearing denim jackets that barely came down to their waists. Culture shock again, You'd think he would have gotten used to it by now.

Mel understood intellectually that these people had to wear short jackets because it gave them greater freedom of movement while they worked, and he also understood that their mall-dwelling females wore pastel workout clothes and running shoes at all times because they were more comfortable than anything else. But to Mel they all looked like children. This was not because Mel was some kind of a snob. It was because he was from Chicago and these people were from the entirely separate cultural, political, and economic entity called downstate.

To make anything work between two such disjointed places there had to be the equivalent of diplomats - people who, in another context, had once been defined as "men sent abroad to lie for their country - in both senses of the word." The intra-Illinois diplomats were the old family law firms in the major and minor towns of the state. These professionals lacked the partisanship to have a killer impulse for their clients. Instead they saw life in terms of each side winning, if at all possible.

In Chicago there were perhaps a hundred families such as the Meyers, ranging through the Polish, Slovak, Irish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and even WASP sections of town, who kept the lines between the two Illinoises open and flowing, working in enter-prises legal and illegal. It was perhaps the purest and most professional group in Illinois, and the Meyers were masters of the guild. Shmuel Meirerowitz's son David, even though he was a Conservative Jew, had the skill and honesty to gain the trust of even the most bigoted downstate ambulance chaser. Generations of lawyers from. Cairo, Quincy, Macomb, Decatur, and Pekin (home of the Fighting Chinks) knew that the Meyer family's word was good. It was not particularly surprising, then, that the Cozzanos had encountered the Meyers, and that they had formed, an alliance.

Since then, a lot of Meyers had put a lot of miles on various cars, driving back and forth. Shmuel normally rode the Illinois Central, but David cruised up and down U.S. 45 in the stupendous Cadillacs and Lincolns of the 1950s and 1960s, and Mel scorched the pavement of Interstate 57 in a succession of Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes.

Mel had defined his very own Checkpoint Charlie, the official dividing line between Chicago and downstate. He drove by it every time he took I-57 south from the heart of the city. It was out in one of the suburbs, Mel had never bothered to find out which, where traffic finally started to open up a little bit. The landmark in question was a water tower, a modern lollipop-shaped one. It was painted bright yellow, and it had a smiley face on it. When Mel saw the damn smiley face he knew he had passed into hostile territory. The flatness of downstate was, in its way, just as stark and awe-inspiring as Grand Canyon or Half Dome. He had been down here a thousand times and it always startled him. The settlers had come here and found an unmarked geometric plane; anything that rose above that plane was the work of human beings. When Mel had first come this way it was mostly grain elevators, water towers, and ranks of bleachers rising up alongside high-school football fields. These artifacts were still there, but nowadays the most prominent structures were microwave relay towers: narrow vertical supports made of steel latticework, sprouting from concrete pads in cornfields, held straight by guy wires, drum-shaped antennas mounted to their tops. Each antenna was pointed several miles across the prairie in the direction of the next microwave relay tower. This was how phone calls got bounced around the country. These things were all over the place, crossing the country with a dense invisible web of high-speed communications, but other places you didn't see them. In cities they were hidden on the tops of buildings, and in places with hills, they were built into the high places where you couldn't see them unless you knew where to look. But out here, the buildings and hills had fallen out from under the phone company and their invisible network had been laid bare. It was not merely visible, but the single most obvious thing about the downstate landscape. It caused Mel to wonder, as he skimmed across the prairie on I-57, its four lanes straight as banjo strings, paralleling the equally straight Illinois Central railway line, whether downstate had some magical feature that might expose another network, a network that had, so far, so perfectly hidden its workings in the complexity of the modern world that Mel wasn't even sure it existed.

Cozzano beckoned Mel into the house and rolled forward into the living room.

"Hey, Willy, how are you?" Mel said, coming in the front door.

He spun a stack of newspapers into Cozzano's lap: the Financial Times was on top, and Cozzano could see the red corner of the Economist sticking out underneath. Mel pounded Cozzano on the shoulder, peeled off his heavy cashmere overcoat, and, oblivious to the fact that it cost more than a small car, tossed it full-length on to the sofa where it would pick up dog hairs. "What is this shit on the TV?" he said. He went up to the set and punched buttons on the cable box until he got CNBC. Then he turned the volume down so it wouldn't interfere with the conversation.

"Hey, Patty," Mel said. "You need to do any medical stuff with Governor Cozzano in the near future?"

Patricia had no idea how to deal with people who were not from Tuscola. She just stood in the dining room, glowing fuzzily in her peach-and-lavender sweatsuit, drying her hands, looking at Mel, completely baffled and uncertain. "Medical stuff?"

"I am asking you," Mel said, "if the Governor will be needing any specific medical attention from you in the next few hours -medications, therapy, anything like that. Or are your duties going to be strictly domestic in nature - making food and taking him to the bathroom and stuff like that?"

Patricia's eyes looked down and to the left. Her mouth was slightly ajar. She was still completely nonplussed.

"Thank you," Mel said, reaching his arms far apart to grab the handles of the big sliding doors that separated the living room from the dining room. He drew them shut with a thunderclap, closing off their view of Patricia. Then he went to another door that had been propped open and kicked out the doorstop.

"In or out, Lover. Command decision!" he snapped.

Lover IV, the golden retriever, scurried into the room and got out of the way as the door swung shut.

"You gotta take a leak or anything?"

"No," Cozzano said.

"You look good, for a guy who's exhausted."

"Huh?"

"You've been working so hard thinking about the campaign that you have collapsed from exhaustion," Mel said. "You're taking a week or two off to recover. In the meantime, your able staff is filling in for you."

Mel popped down on the couch next to Cozzano. He began to rub his chin with his hand. Mel had a thick and fast-growing beard and shaved a couple of times a day. For him, chin rubbing was something he did when he was taking stock of his overall situation in the world.

"You were going to blow your brains out, weren't you?"

"Yeah," Cozzano said.

Mel thought it over. He didn't seem especially shocked. The idea did not have a big emotional impact on him. He seemed to be weighing it, the way he weighed everything. Finally he shrugged, unable to deliver a clear verdict.

"Well, I've never been one to argue with you, just offer advice," Mel said.

"Yes no."

"My advice right now is that it is entirely your decision. But there may be factors of which you are not aware." "Oh?"

"Yeah. I'm sure you're probably thinking what it would be like to spend twenty, thirty years this way."

"You win the Camaro!" Cozzano said.

"Well, it's possible that you may not have to. I'm getting, uh, shall we say, feelers, from people who may have a therapy to cure this kind of thing." "Cure it?"

"Yeah. According to these people you could get back a lot of what you lost. Maybe get back all of it." "How? The melon is dead."

"Right," Mel said, not missing a beat, "the brain tissue is toast, Kaput. Croaked. Not coming back. They can rewire some of the connections, though. Replace the missing parts with artificial stuff. Or so they say."

"Where?"

"Some research institute out in California. It's one of Coover's little projects."

"Coover." Cozzano chuckled a little bit and shook his head. DeWayne Coover was a contemporary of Cozzano's father. Like John Cozzano, he had gotten lucky with some investments during the war. He was a billionaire, one of those billionaires that no one ever hears about. He lived on some patch of warm sandy real estate down in California and he didn't get out much except to play golf with ex-presidents and washed-up movie stars. His granddaughter Althea had gone to Stanford with Mary Catherine and they had been on the fringes of each other's social circles.

John Cozzano and DeWayne Coover had had a number of dealings during and after the war and had never really hit it off. Some people liked to believe that there was some kind of rivalry Between the two men, but this was a completely off-the-wall idea. Coover's success dwarfed that of the Cozzano family. He was in an entirely different league.

"I got a call from one of Coover's lawyers," Mel said. "It was on an unrelated thing. A leukemia thing."

After Christina died of leukemia, Cozzano had founded a charitable organization to research the disease and assist victims. DeWayne Coover, who had a penchant for big medical research projects, had been a major contributor. So it was not unusual for Cozzano's people to talk to Coover's people.

"So I'm talking to the guy, and it's about some kind of trivial question relating to taxes. It comes into my head to wonder why this guy, who is a senior partner in a big-time L.A. firm, is talking to me about this issue, when it's so tiny that our secretaries could almost handle it. And then he says to me, 'So, how's the Governor doing these days?' Just like that."

Cozzano laughed and shook his head. It was incredible how word got around.

"Well, to make a long story short, he's been dumping bucks into researching problems like yours. And he's definitely putting out feelers."

"Get more phone books," Cozzano said.

"More information about it? I knew you'd say that."

Cozzano raised his right hand to his head, shaped like a pistol, and brought his thumb down like a hammer.

"Right," Mel said, "a bullet to the head is the most experimental therapy of all."

11

The next time Dr. Radhakrishnan heard from Mr. Salvador was ten days later, when two packages arrived in his office, courtesy of GODS, Global Omnipresent Delivery Systems. One of them was a small box. The other was a long tube. Dr. Radhakrishnan paused before opening them to marvel at their pure, geometric perfection. In India, as in most of the United States, mail was a dusty, battered, imperfect thing. Mail came wrapped up in pro­tective layers of inexpensive, fibrous brown paper, tied together with fuzzy twine that looked like spun granola; the contents burst through the wrapping at the corners, skid marks trailed along every side, and the shapes of the packages and envelopes always came just a bit short of the geometric ideal. Addresses were scrawled on it in magic marker and ballpoint pen, antique-looking stamps, fresh from the engraver, stuck to it, annotations made by various postal workers along the way.

That was not how Mr. Salvador mailed things. When Mr. Salvador mailed something, he went through GODS. The biggest name in the express-mail business. Mr. Salvador's mail was not made of any paper-based substance. No fibers in there. Nothing brown. The wrapping was some kind of unbreakable plastic sheeting with a slick teflonesque feel to it, white and seamless as the robe of Christ. Both of the packages were festooned with brilliantly colored, glossy, self-stick, plasticized GODS labels. None of the labels, nor any other parts of the packages, had ever been sullied by human hand-writing. Everything was computer-printed. Every one of the labels had some kind of bar code on it. Some of the labels contained address-related information. Some contained lengthy strings of mysterious digits. Some pertained to insurance and other legalistic matters, and others, like medals on an officer's chest seemed to be purely honorific in nature.

The color scheme consisted of three hues; every check box, every logo, every stern warning and legal disclaimer on every label was in one of these three hues. The hues all went together perfectly and they looked great, whether they were on the packages themselves or on the neatly pressed NASA-style coverall worn by the fetching young woman who had delivered the packages, obtaining Dr. Radhakrishnan's signature on a flat-screened notebook computer that beeped and squealed as it beamed his digitized scrawl back to the remote computer inside the glossy, tri-hued GODS delivery van. The woman was cheery, confident, professional, apparently taking a little time off from, her normal job as a trial lawyer, aerobics instructor, or nuclear physicist to do some life-enriching delivery work. Dr. Radhakrishnan, the world's greatest neurosurgeon, had felt small, dirty, and ignorant before her. But before he could ask her for a date, she was out the door, having more important things to do.

Dr. Radhakrishnan opened the box first. There was no tape; the magic white wrapping stuck to itself. As he pulled it apart, stickers and labels tore in half, and he got an intuition that, perhaps, part of the thrill of receiving such mail was that you got to dramatize your own importance by tearing it apart. It was like ravishing an expensive, salon-fresh call girl.

Inside the wrapping was a featureless hard plastic box, white and unmarked, that had to be opened using some trick that Dr. Radhakrishnan could not figure out right away. When the box had been penetrated, the entire contents turned out to have been sealed in plastic wrap, like a glass in a motel room. Dr. Radhakrishnan knew that in the context of American culture, to seal something up in plastic was to honor it.

The contents turned out to be a short stack of unmarked 3.5-inch floppy disks. He remembered that he and Mr. Salvador had had a discussion about the Calyx operating system, so, on a hunch, he popped one of the disks into the Pacific Netware workstation on his desk.

The systems were compatible. There were a few files stored on the disk, all in a standard format used for color images. They all sounded like medical scans of one type or another. Dr. Radhakrishnan opened some of them up and checked them out; these files were all pictures of the same man's brain. The man had suffered a stroke that had, to judge from the position of the two affected areas, probably interfered with his speech and caused some paralysis on the left side. Interestingly enough, the affected parts of the brain were isodense, which is to say that they had the same density as the healthy parts of the brain surrounding them. This indicated that these pictures had been taken within a few days of the stroke.

It did not take much imagination on Dr. Radhakrishnan's part to realize that he was looking at the brain of Mr. Salvador's friend. Mr. Salvador was implicitly asking him a question: is this the type of damage that you can fix?

And the answer was yes. In theory. But the facility that would be required to do the work did not exist and wouldn't exist for years, even with preposterously optimistic assumptions about grants and funding. Oh, you could build one anytime you wanted, if you had the money. But who had that kind of money?

Dr. Radhakrishnan eventually outsmarted the latching system on the tube. Rolled up inside was a thick stack of poster-sized sheets of paper.

In his cluttered lab it took some doing just to find a table large enough to unroll them. Finally he chased Toyoda out of the coffee room, where he had been watching MTV, and cleared off the counter, wiped up a few spills with a napkin, and unrolled the pages across the wood-grained Formica. Unrolled, the stack of sheets was nearly half an inch thick. They were all the same size, and all covered with precise, colorful drawings.

Flipping quickly through the stack he saw floor plans, elevations, detailed renderings of individual rooms. The top sheet was an elevation. It portrayed a modern, high-tech structure perched on a piney bluff overlooking the sea. There was a modest parking lot, a satellite dish on the roof, lots of windows, an outdoor cafeteria, even a bicycle path. Looked like a nice place to work.

The second sheet was an elevation of an entirely different building. This one was in an urban setting. It had an austere sand-stone color with a few darkly tinted windows set up above street level. It was also high-tech, but at the same time it was strikingly Indian: he could see the classic motifs of Hindu architecture, updated and streamlined. The materials were unusual: reinforced concrete where it counted, of course, but sandstone and marble on the outside, even some traditional inlay work.

The third sheet showed the same building from a higher angle, revealing a central, glassed-in atrium lined with offices and a bloom with lush flowering tropical plants. Behind it, a neighborhood of low, blocky concrete structures stretched toward a somewhat more built-up district a few blocks away, centered on a huge circular roadway lined with shops and offices.

Dr. Radhakrishnan was shocked to recognize the ring road: it was Connaught Circus, the solar plexus of his home city of New Delhi. Once he figured that out, everything snapped into focus, he understood which direction he was looking in, recognized the shapes of the Volga Hotel and the glassfront of the big British Airways office on the Circus, the entrances to the underground bazaar.

He knew exactly where this building was. It had been drawn in on the site of the Ashok Cinema, a memorable, if decrepit structure, where Papa had taken him to movies as a child. Right in between Connaught Circus and the India Gate, close to the seat of government, embassies, everything.

If this building - whatever it was - was really under construction, or even being contemplated, it was news to him. He should have heard about it by now, because fancy new high-tech structures did not spring up every day there. Dr. Radhakrishnan did not know what this building was, but he could recognize high-tech architecture when he saw it. It seemed that someone had ambitious plans to create a sort of silicon ashram.

Maybe this was some sort of an investment opportunity. Or maybe they were trying to attract researchers to this new complex, But it had to be a far-off fantasy on someone's part because if ground had been broken in Delhi - if this plan had even been whispered - Dr. Radhakrishnan would have heard about it. He was not the most well connected Delhian by a long shot, but he knew people and he stayed in touch.

He continued paging through the stack, trying to glean some clues. The drawings alternated between the two buildings: the one on the bluff above the sea and the one in Delhi. Space was set aside for offices, R&D, laboratories, operating rooms, and even a few private bedrooms, complete with all of the equipment you would expect to see in a state-of-the-art intensive-care ward. Evidently these buildings were for biomedical research of the most advanced sort.

The building in Delhi included one operating theater that was especially large and complicated. Dr. Radhakrishnan found a detailed plan of the room and went over it carefully, growing more and more certain as he did so that he had seen this before: it was an exact reproduction of the specialized operating room that he had described to Mr. Salvador. The one that Mr. Salvador had taken with him on those disks. The plans for Radhakrishnan's ultimate operating theater had simply been dropped whole into the blueprints for a new building. But it wasn't a hack job. The systems had all been integrated into their surroundings. The plumbing lines, the electrical wiring, the gas lines, all went somewhere. Subtle modifications had been made without changing the essential features. In fact, the room had been improved in several ways. Engineers had been at work on this. Very good engineers.

Dr. Radhakrishnan was beginning to experience a prickly, hot feeling centered on the back of his neck, as though he were the victim of a joke of psychological experiment. He shuffled quickly through the stack, trying to get clues, looking for a point of reference. But he couldn't find anything that explained whether this was reality or fantasy, who had these plans drawn up, or why.

Until he got to the last sheet, which showed an elevation of the front entrance of the building in Delhi. The doorway was sur­rounded by a massive masonry frame. The material had a rich red hue, the color of Indian sandstone. The name of the building was carved into flat square stone next to the door, a Rosetta stone in English and Hindi:

DR. RADHAKRISHNAN V.R.J.V.V. GANGADHAR

INSTITUTE OF BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH - DELHI BRANCH

He read it over several times, as though this were the first time he had ever seen his own name written down.

He sifted back through the stack, looking for elevations of the building above the ocean. Finally he dug up an elevation showing it from ground level, with a concrete marker set into the ground by the entrance to the parking lot:

ROBERT J. COOVER BUILDING

DR. RADHAKRISHNAN V.R.J.V.V. GANGADHAR

INSTITUTE OF BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH - CALIFORNIA BRANCH

Finally, a clue here. Robert J. Coover was a very rich man. A billionaire. The building in which Dr. Radhakrishnan was standing was the Coover Biotech Pavilion; Coover had had it thrown together a couple of years ago when he decided that biotechnology was the wave of the future.

It made sense, in a way. This Elton State thing had just been a fishing expedition, a stratagem to attract promising talent. Now that Dr. Radhakrishnan's project with the baboons had succeeded so brilliantly, Coover understood that it was time to pull away and get serious about forging ahead. And Dr. Radhakrishnan was ready to do some forging.

It was 9:30 a.m., one of the few times of day when he and his brother in Delhi might be awake simultaneously. In Delhi, the opposite side of the world from Elton, it was 10:00 p.m. and Arun would probably be watching the news on his television set.

Dialing India was always an adventure. He got through eventually and reached his brother at his home in one of the pleasant colonies on the outskirts of the metropolis, where government officials lived with their air conditioners. As he had anticipated, the English language version of the news was running in the background. The sound quality on the phone was very bad and Arun had to run over and turn the television down in order for them to get through the obligatory several minutes of family-related small talk.

"Me? Oh, I'm fine, everything is going well enough," Dr. Radhakrishnan said. "I heard some - some rumors about a new development in the city and I wanted to ask you if you knew anything about them."

"What sort of rumors?"

"Has anything been happening lately with the Ashok Cinema?"

A silence. Then, "Ha!" Arun sounded satisfied, vindicated. "So news of this heinous crime has even reached Elton, New Mexico!"

"Only the most tenuous reports, I can assure you." Dr. Radhakrishnan did not want to put his brother off by explaining to him that if a hydrogen bomb were dropped in the middle of Connaught Circus, it probably wouldn't show up in the American media unless American journalists were killed.

"I knew it would come out eventually. Little brother, it is corruption and CIA intrigues. Pure and simple. That's the only explanation."

"Are they planning to do something to the theater?"

Arun laughed bitterly. "Let me catch you up on events. The Ashok Theatre does not exist anymore, as of yesterday!"

"No!"

"I kid you not."

"I knew it was decrepit but-"

"It is more decrepit now. They have smashed it to the ground.

Within twenty-four hours the site was picked clean by a million harijans. The came from every quarter of the city, like piranhas, descended on the rubble before the dust had settled, and carried away every piece of the building. Why, my secretary says that today they had earth-moving equipment there, digging a basement!"

"But... who is 'they' in this case?"

"Guess."

"I can't."

"Maclntrye Engineering. The right hand of the CIA!"

Like many Indian politicians of a certain age, Arun liked to find the CIA everywhere. Gangadhar, having spent some time in the States and gotten an idea of the way that large American institutions actually operated, had his doubts. He had come to realize that MacIntyre Engineering would be a far more fearsome multi-national corporation if it had nothing whatsoever to do with the United States Government.

"Since when are you such a cinema bluff anyway?" Gangadhar asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Why is this such a heinous crime? The Ashok Theatre was a dump. It was high time for it to be torn down anyway."

Arun sighed at his brother's naivete. "It is not so much what they did as the way they did it," he said.

"How was that?"

"They swaggered. They came into town like pirates. Little brother, it was like the old days, when the Brits or the Yanks would charge in and do as they pleased."

"But Arun, we are a sovereign country. How could they-"

"A sovereign country run by men." Arun sighed. "Corruptible men."

"They bribed their way in?"

"Gangadhar, do you have any idea how long it would normally take to obtain all the permits to raze a theater and begin con­struction of a new structure?"

"Weeks?"

"Months. Years, Maclntyre did it in days. They only got here a week ago. The telephone lines were smoking, Gangadhar, so many of their people were phoning in from the States, calling all the right officials, sending round limousines to take them out to lunch. I have never seen anything like it."

Someone was rapping on the frame of Dr. Radhakrishnan's door. He looked up to see yet another delivery person from GODS carrying a package. This one was the size of an orange crate.

"Just a moment, I have to sign for something," he said. He beckoned the courier into his office, signed his name on the notebook computer with a nonchalant flourish, and waved him out. He withdrew a penknife from his desk drawer and began to cut the fiberglass tape that held the top of the box in place. It was a thick-walled styrofoam sarcophagus.

"Do you have any idea what sort of structure they intend to build?" Dr. Radhakrishnan continued.

"If they had gone through the normal channels, I would, but the ink is hardly dry on the blueprints, the workers themselves probably don't even know what they are building. The pace of the construction is frantic. They have actually purchased a local cement factory for their own private use! Gangadhar, everyone says that America had gone downhill, but you would never believe it if you could come here and see this. The only parallel I can think of is the Manhattan Project."

"Did I ever tell you about the time I went to the Taj Mahal?" Dr. Radhakrishnan said, suddenly, on a whim.

"I don't know. Why?"

Dr. Radhakrishnan had gotten the lid off the styrofoam box. The walls were three inches thick. The interior was filled with a swirling fog of dry ice. He waved his hand over it to dissipate the cryogenic mist. In the middle of the container, neatly packed between large chunks of dry ice, was a small rack made of clear plastic, about the size of a cigarette case. It was made to hold several narrow glass tubes. At the moment, it held two of them.

"I was standing there looking at some of the inlay work on the north wall of the structure. Magnificent stuff. And this group of Americans was there. Had come all the way around the world to see the Taj Mahal. It was beastly hot, must have been forty-five degrees. They were all dirty and tired and as usual there were pickpockets all over the place. And one of them said, 'Hell, we should just build one of these things. In Arizona or somewhere.'

"You're kidding."

"Not at all. He thought that they would just raise some money and replicate the Taj. And all the other Americans just nodded as though that were a perfectly reasonable idea."

"It's unbelievable."

Dr. Radhakrishnan had opened the little case now, taking care not to burn his hands with the intense cold, and removed the two narrow glass tubes. Each one was mostly empty except for a small dark wad of material near one end. He raised them up toward the light.

"They have no values of any kind," he said. "Nothing means anything to them. The Taj is just a construction project, a particular manipulation of assets. And whatever they're doing on the Ashok Theatre site is more of the same."

He saw a glint of red and realized that the dark wads must be tissue samples of some kind, which had presumably leaked a bit of blood against the glass walls of the tubes before they had frozen. He stepped over toward his window to allow the winter sunlight to illuminate them a little better.

Arun's voice sounded far away. "Maybe they're building a Taj in Delhi so they don't have to take the bus all the way to Agra," he joked.

Dr. Radhakrishnan said nothing. He had recognized the contents of the tubes.

Mr. Salvador had mailed him pieces of two people's brains.

12

From two thousand feet above the California coast, Dr. Radhakrishnan could see the whole thing taking shape. This was one of those especially nice corporate jets with oversized windows: a Gale Aerospace Gyrfalcon. The windows gave him a panoramic view of the entire parcel: there was the flat, sandy plain where the future position of the private landing strip was already marked out with little fluorescent orange flags. There was the gravel access road, which was rapidly being transmuted into asphalt by a road crew. There was the grove of trees that would be turned into a little park where the workers could recreate. And finally, high above the pounding white crests of the Pacific, there was the rocky bluff where the facility itself would be constructed.

Was being constructed.

"My God," Dr. Radhakrishnan blurted. "It's half finished."

Mr. Salvador smiled. "This sort of rough structural work always goes surprisingly quickly. I suppose that putting on all the door-knobs will take eons. Care for another cigar?

The coastline passed beneath them. The afternoon sun was now slanting in through the windows on the left side of the Gyrfalcon.

Dr. Radhakrishnan still didn't know how to take all of this. He had been thinking about it for days and still hadn't figured it out. It

was way too much. Totally unrealistic. He had scraped for money and recognition his whole career. Now he was getting everything.

The Manhattan Project, as Arun had said. This could not be happening. But it was happening.

His instincts told him that there was no rational explanation for bis frantic expenditure of money. But that was a closed-minded attitude not befitting a scientist. He was not a businessman. Who was he to say that it didn't make financial sense?

Dr. Radhakrishnan V.R.J.V.V. Gangadhar belonged on this business jet. And he deserved his research institutes also. It was altogether fitting and proper.

"I couldn't help noticing you had some newspapers in your briefcase," Dr. Radhakrishnan said. "I didn't get a chance to pick one up this morning."

"Yesterday's New York Times," Mr. Salvador said.

"Oh," Dr. Radhakrishnan said disappointedly. "I was hoping to take a look at the stock quotes."

"Say no more," Mr. Salvador said. He put his cigar down and moved to the front of the cabin. He sat down in a leather swivel chair in front of a portable communications setup that was built into the forward bulkhead of the Gyrfalcon, just behind the cockpit. It included a telephone and a fax machine, a keyboard, and a couple of flat-screen monitors. The fax machine had been oozing paper almost since the moment they had taken off in Elton, and by now a long curlicue had piled up beneath it on the deck. "These Gale birds are pricey but they have peerless avionics," Mr. Salvador continued, punching away on the keyboard.

A stock ticker materialized at the bottom of one of the monitor screens, scrolling from right to left. "Can you make this out from where you are?"

"Yes, I can see it very clearly, thank you."

"I should have anticipated our interest and had it running when you came aboard. My apologies."

"Oh, I'm not that much of a player," Dr. Radhakrishnan said, embarrassed by the fuss. "But I have a bit of stock in Genomics, that company in Seattle. When we began working with them, I was so impressed that I decided to buy in."

"And it's been moving rapidly of late, making you a nervous wreck," Mr. Salvador said.

"Exactly. Takeover rumors. I told my broker to sell at eighty-three."

"Then you made out brilliantly." "I did? What do you mean?"

"Genomics was just bought out by Gale Aerospace this morning. At eighty-five. You called it exactly."

"Gale Aerospace now owns Genomics?" Dr. Radhakrishnan said. He was relieved and delighted. But he also thought it was just a bit eerie. He glanced around at the interior of the jet's cabin as if it might be able to tell him something. "Yes."

"Why would a rocket and missile company want to own a scruffy little genetic engineering firm in Seattle?"

"Diversification!" Mr. Salvador said. "An intelligent enough strategy in this age of world peace, wouldn't you say?"

"Yes. Now that you mention it, it does seem perfectly logical." "While we happen to be on the subject of tissue culture, did you get my other package? The tissue samples?" Mr. Salvador said.

Tissue samples was a nice word for it. "I did," Dr. Radhakrishnan said. "They were good clean samples. Whoever took them for you knew his business." "We try to hire well," Mr. Salvador said.

"This is the first opportunity I have had to work with human brain tissue," Dr. Radhakrishnan said. As he delivered this sentence, he slowed down, sensing that he was on slick footing.

Mr. Salvador smiled understandingly. "I know that the regula­tions on these things in the States can be quite stifling."

"Exactly. Anyway, I, uh, or we, my students and I, were not sure exactly - we have so little experience." Dr. Radhakrishnan knew that he was groping pathetically, but Mr. Salvador kept smiling and nodding. "We have, anyway, initiated the cell culturing process with those samples... sent them on to Genomics. There were a few false starts-"

"Naturally. That's how science works."

"-but the samples you gave us were so, well, generous, so large, that we had a lot of margin for error. I am almost surprised, well..." "Yes?"

"Of course human brains are larger than baboon brains, so my perspective is skewed just a bit, but if I were to take samples of a human brain that were so large, I would" - again, he sensed he was on slick footing - "well, let us say that in America, with its malpractice hysteria, where you always have to cover your tail-" "Ridiculous." Mr. Salvador agreed. "-lawyers-"

"Carping and niggling and backfilling," Mr. Salvador said. "In some ways, Doctor, America is the best place in the world to do research. In other ways, with its litigiousness, it is a terrible place. We think that India and America may be able to complement each other in this respect."

He was so good. "Exactly. Mr. Salvador, you have a knack." "I am so pleased that we are able to see eye to eye on this," Mr. Salvador said.

"How are the, uh, patients doing, by the way?" Dr. Radhakrishnan said. "Ha! I almost called them specimens."

"Call them whatever you like," Mr. Salvador said. "They are doing well. You will be able to examine them shortly. Of course we would not have selected them for inclusion in this program if they had not already suffered neurological damage, so this makes answering your question somewhat problematic." "Yes, I see your point." "Well. I don't mean to wear you out with all this technical chitchat. We'll be taking the great circle route to Delhi," Mr. Salvador said. "We'll make refueling stops in exciting places Anchorage and Seoul. There's a private cabin on the other side of that bulkhead where you can get some rest, and while you're there I'm sure that Maria will be happy to give you a massage or engage you in conversation or whatever it is that would make the time go faster."

"Ah," Dr. Radhakrishnan said. "I thought I smelled perfume." "As you can see, Mr. Coover is a consummate host. My job does not come with such fringes, but I have more than enough to occupy myself." Mr. Salvador nodded in the direction of the communications rig on the bulkhead.

"You are a busy man," Dr. Radhakrishnan observed. "Great things are afoot," Mr. Salvador said with uncharacteristic gusto. "For certain people, this is a fascinating time to be alive."

Dr. Radhakrishnan certainly felt that way. "How long have you been working for Mr. Coover?"

Mr. Salvador paused before answering, his face alert, his eyes glittering. He was not thinking about how to answer so much as he was studying Radhakrishnan's face. He seemed, as usual, ever so slightly amused. "I wouldn't make unwarranted assumptions," he said.

Dr. Radhakrishnan wanted to pursue this line of questioning but he had realized that, by asking about Mr. Salvador's background, he had blundered into the realm of bad taste. And that was much worse than bad morals or bad manners for a certain kind of person. However, he sensed without having met her that Maria would be a much more accessible person on all levels. "I'm going to freshen up," he said, nodding toward the private cabin in the back. "Take your time and relax," Mr. Salvador said, "it's a long way to India."

In his usual style, Mr. Salvador had gone to great lengths to make Dr. Radhakrishnan feel at home in Delhi, even though Delhi was his home. A large suite had been rented out at the spectacular Imperial Hotel, an aptly named pile sitting at the end of a palm-tree-lined drive just off Janpath. It was just south of Connaught Circus and less than a mile from where the institute was being constructed. Mr. Salvador had rented out a couple of floors of the hotel. During the course of the long flight across the Pacific, Maria had developed quite an infatuation with Dr. Radhakrishnan and insisted that she be allowed to stay in Delhi for a while; Mr.

Salvador had grudgingly granted her a suite of her own, just down the hall from Dr. Radhakrishnan's. Mr. Salvador was staying at the other end of the hall in lesser but still opulent surroundings.

When Dr. Radhakrishnan arrived at the Imperial, a pleasant surprise awaited: his entire extended family. They all cheered and hugged and kissed him right there in the parlor of his suite and then moved downstairs to a banquet room for a lengthy dinner. Dr. Radhakrishnan felt like a conquering hero back from the wars, being welcomed home by the maharaja with a royal feast.

After that, Maria had to nurse him through a day or two of hangover, fatigue, and jet lag. When he finally felt ready, he called for a car and told the driver to take him southward down Janpath into the New Delhi South Extension, where, he had been assured, the temporary laboratories of the Radhakrishnan Institute were bustling away.

On his way out of the hotel, he met a young American fellow in the elevator. Dr. Radhakrishnan could have met this man in Antarctica and still recognized him immediately as an American high-tech entrepreneur. He was in his early thirties. He had long hair that had probably been cut in the mirror at home. He beard. He wore glasses. He was dressed in blue jeans, sneakers, a decent enough striped white shirt, and a crumpled wool blazer. He was carrying a briefcase in one hand and a rather formidable laptop computer in the other.

And one other key point: unlike everyone else he had met since the beginning of the flight to Delhi, he did not make any effort to brown-nose. "Hi, you must be Radhakrishnan," the man said. "I'm Peter Zeldovich. Most people I work with call me Zeldo. That's my handle on most e-mail systems. Nice to meet you." He put his laptop on the floor of the elevator and stuck out hand; Dr. Radhakrishnan shook it, limply and reluctantly.

"Gotten over your jet lag yet?" this man said as they took the elevator down to lobby level.

Dr. Radhakrishnan had already forgotten his proper name. He was terrible with names. Now he knew why everyone called this person Zeldo. His real names vanished instantly from memory; Zeldo lingered unremovably on the doorstep of the mind, like a steaming turd left behind by a stray dog. Hopefully they would not be working together very much.

Naturally they would not have to work together. It was Dr. Radhakrishnan's institute, he was in charge, he could send Zeldo back to his festering West Coast bachelor pad whenever he got to be too annoying. Which might not take very long, at this rate. "Heard you were on your way in to the Barracks, so I thought I'd hitch a ride with you," Zeldo said as they exited into the lobby. "The Barracks?"

"Yeah. That's what we've been calling the temporary institute. Guess you haven't seen it yet."

"Why would you call it by that name?" Of course it was superfluous even to ask questions like this; these breezy American chaps had to have nicknames for everything.

"Because that's what it is. It's down south, on the edge of this military zone-" "The Defence Colony?"

"Yeah." Zeldo reached for one of the doors, almost colliding with the turbaned doorman who opened it for him. Dr. Radhakrishnan had only been back in the civilized world for a couple of days, but now it felt as if he had never left, and as if the years in Elton were nothing more than a frigid nightmare, "Anyway, the temporary lab facilities are set up in these barracks-type buildings. Soviet concrete things, you know. It'll be okay for the time being, I guess."

Zeldo had the presence of mind to allow the driver to open the car door for him, and he slid into the seat ahead of Dr. Radhakrishnan. He folded up his long legs so that his knees were pressed against the back of the driver's seat and piled the briefcase and the computer on his lap. The driver pulled out on to Janpath, ignoring the painted lanes and creating his own, in the traditional local style.

"I'm the chiphead from Pacware," Zeldo said, as if Dr. Radhakrishnan were supposed to know what that meant. "What is Pacware?"

"Pacific Netware. I design logic devices - chips - for them." "Am I to gather that you are connected, in some way, with my institute?"

Zeldo gaped at him. "Sure," he said. "I'm doing the hardware design on the silicon portion of the new model biochips." "I was not aware that a new model was required."

Zeldo shrugged. "New models are always required," he said. "Hardware design is a fast-moving target. You don't update your designs every few months, you're working with Stone Age technology."

Dr. Radhakrishnan was finding it very difficult to keep his temper under control. Perhaps he was still just a bit irritable from his travels. For him to come home in triumph and finally to receive the recognition he deserved, and then to be stuck in an elevator, and a car, with this laid-back Yank who told him he was back in the Stone Age-

But he held his tongue, because he had an inkling that Zeldo might be half right. The chips they put into the baboons were off-the-shelf models with limited capabilities. It was a basic fact, with electronics, that if you designed a customized chip to do a particular job, it could work thousands of times faster than an off-the-shelf model.

If Zeldo could do this job properly and build a new, specialized chip for this purpose, it might vastly improve the capabilities of Dr. Radhakrishnan's implant.

Actually, bringing in a "chiphead" from a hot company like Pacific Netware was a brilliant idea. He wished he had thought of it himself. He wondered who had thought of it.

"Did they try to set you up with a babe?" Zeldo said. "I'm sorry? A babe?"

"Yeah. A chick. You know, a prostitute." Dr. Radhakrishnan wished that Zeldo had not used this word. "They did with me," Zeldo said. "Bought me a first class ticket on British Airways to get me over here from San Francisco. Soon as I get on, this incredible woman sits down next to me. She was playing footsy with me before we even pulled away from the gate. God, she was a hot lady."

Dr. Radhakrishnan smiled conspiratorially. "You liked her, eh?" he said.

"Well, she didn't have a lot going for her intellectually," Zeldo said, frowning, "and I'm involved in a monogamous relationship at home."

They did not converse much more until they arrived at the Defence Colony, whose gate was guarded by heavy machine guns in sandbag nests, manned by eagle-eyed Sikhs. The Sikhs let them through without opening fire; a minute or two later they were at the Barracks.

They had obviously been constructed to house troops assigned to guard duty and other low-level work in the Defence Colony. Because this was Delhi, and the Defence Colony was prestigious, they were actually quite nice, for barracks. Each building was thirty or forty meters long, wide enough for a row of beds down either side with a broad aisle down the middle. They were all concrete and concrete block, with tin roofs, and it was clear that they had been hastily painted and retrofitted with better electrical service and air-conditioning. The Radhakrishnan Institute now occupied two of these buildings. Building 1 was filled with offices and laboratories. Building 2 was filled with beds. The beds were filled with brain damage cases.

Strokes were generally not a major health problem in India. The classic stroke patient was a fat old smoker and though may people smoked in India, few people were fat and many did not have the opportunity to get old. Fortunately, from the point of view of research, any time you got nearly a billion people living and working in conditions not notable for safety, you did not have to rely on strokes in order to see a broad and deep spectrum of brain damage.

On his initial inspection of Building 2, Dr. Radhakrishnan saw a fascinating assortment of unfortunates who had been combed from the slums. It seemed that Mr. Salvador had some sort of connection with the Lady Wilburdon Foundation, a British charity group that operated free clinics and hospitals all over India. Mr. Salvador had exploited this connection, recruiting medical students from all over the country as brain damage talent scouts who would scan incoming cases and let him know of any promising prospects. In addition to the two whose brains had already been sampled, Dr. Radhakrishnan saw a man who had had a brick dropped on his head in a construction site. A soldier shot through the brain during ethnic violence in Srinagar. A lunch delivery boy from Delhi who had been thrown off his motorcycle rickshaw in a collision with a lorry. A street kid from Bombay who, in trying to do a second-story job on an old colonial structure, had slipped and fallen twelve feet; a spike on the wrought-iron fence had entered his open mouth, passed up through his palate, and impaled his brain.

Even by Western standards, the care these patients were receiving was fairly generous. The building was no architectural gem, but it was clean and well maintained. It was not lavishly appointed with high-tech equipment, but it was well-staffed with attentive nurses and nursing students who were clearly doing all they could to see to the patients' individual needs. And none of these patients was paying a single rupee. Most of them had no rupees to begin with.

Building 1 had its own generators, a pair of brand-new Honda portable units delivering a hundred and twenty volts of all-American sixty-cycle power. The juice was filtered and con­ditioned through an uninterruptible power supply and then routed through shiny, freshly installed conduit to be a generous number of galvanized steel junction boxes, bolted to the barracks walls every couple of meters, studded with American-style three-prong outlets. All of this had been setup so that Zeldo and his ilk could fly straight in from California, drop their whores off at the Imperial, and plug their computer and other more arcane devices straight into the wall without having to deal with the awful culture shock of incom­patible plugs and voltages. More to the point, the Honda generators would not flicker, spike, brown out, and back out as the Delhi grid was apt to. No precious data would be lost to unpredictable Third World influences.

Zeldo and a couple of other slangy pizza-eating beards from America had laid claim to one end of Building 1 and set up their own little outpost of heavy metal music and novelty foam-rubber sledgehammers for pounding on their workstations when they got frustrated. They had even erected a sign: PACIFIC NETWARE-ASIAN HEADQUARTERS. On his way in, Dr. Radhakrishnan had noted the presence of a freshly installed satellite dish, and he could not help but suppose that they were connected to that.

Mr. Salvador had his own little nook at the other end of the building, as far away from the foam rubber sledgehammers as he could get. He was not in at the moment, but Dr. Radhakrishnan knew Mr. Salvador's style when he saw it: a heavy antique desk, comfortably scuffed, an electric shoe polisher, and every communications device known to science.

The intervening space was all at Dr. Radhakrishnan's disposal. At this point it was all new, empty desks and new, empty filing cabinets. A few people had already moved in. Supposedly, Toyoda was on his way in from Elton and might have already arrived. There were also a few promising Indian graduate students whom Mr. Salvador had managed to recruit away from their positions in America and Europe, and there were signs that some of these people had already arrived, claimed desks, and gotten down to work.

At the moment there was nothing for Dr. Radhakrishnan to do except sit down with a big stack of medical records that had been assembled on the head cases in Building 2, and sort through them, looking for patients with the right sort of brain damage.

A couple of hours after Dr. Radhakrishnan arrived, a patient named Mohinder Singh was brought in. He was a lorry driver from Himachal Pradesh, way up north in the foothills of the Himalayas. He had been driving down a mountain road with a bundle of half-inch pipe lashed to the back of his lorry. The pipes were apparently of different lengths; some stuck out farther than others. His brakes had gone out and he had gone off the road and slammed into something. The bundle of pipes had shot forward. The longest one had come in through the back window of the truck, struck him just behind the ear, passed all the way through his head, and emerged through one of the eyeballs. A nearby road crew had used a hacksaw to cut off most of the pipe, leaving only the portion that was stuck through his head, and he had been evacuated to a nearby Lady Wilburdon Charities clinic where he had been noticed by one of the talent scouts.

He did not look very promising at first. It seemed likely that the pipe had smashed things around quite a bit inside there and bruised large portions of the brain. But Dr. Radhakrishnan had not gotten to where he was by being hasty and superficial. He shipped Singh down the road to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences for a series of head scans.

AIIMS was India's foremost medical research institute and it was only a couple of minutes away from the Barracks along the Delhi Ring Road. They would be able to take some excellent pictures of Mr. Singh's brain with the equipment they had there. And, in a stroke of luck, the chunk of pipe that was still embedded in Mr. Singh's head was made out of copper, a nonmagnetic substance; they would be able to run him through an NMR scanner without turning it into a projectile.

Dr. Radhakrishnan was stunned to learn that the pipe had gone through his head almost three days previously. He must have beer in great pain, but he refused to acknowledge it. From the head down he was well-nourished and in perfect health. This was one patient who was not going to go into shock every time they put a needle in his arm.

When Singh came back from AIIMS with a stack of films and scans piled on his chest, Dr. Radhakrishnan was pleasantly sur­prised. The pipe was thin-walled, cut off fresh and sharp on the end that had gone through Singh's head. As best as Dr. Radhakrishnan could tell from trying to interpret the images, it had sliced its way through the soft, gelatinous brain tissue, rather than shoving it around and bruising it. It had acted almost like a core sampler.

Once the pipe was taken out and some of the mess cleaned up, assuming that Singh did not get infected, which was simply a question of antibiotics, he was going to be an ideal candidate for therapy.

"Not a whiner," Mr. Salvador said, when he came by later to inspect. "Robust. Positive attitude, as far as I can tell. Willing to try just about anything. He reminds me of the chap in the States."

"What chap?"

"Whom you heard on the tape. Whose scans you looked at."

"Ah, yes."

A thrilling sensation suddenly washed over Dr. Radhakrishnan's body. A wave of adrenaline seemed to be rushing through his circulatory system like a chemical tsunami. He opened his eyes a little wider and blinked a few times as though he had just stepped out into bright warm sunlight after a long winter in Elton, New

Mexico, and his body rocked from side to side just a little bit, its stance and balance changing as he stood up straighter, breathed a little deeper. The jet lag vanished. He looked around him, suddenly taking in the room with the frighteningly intense glare of a raptor soaring on a mountain thermal. His hands tingled, almost as if the saw and the drill were already there, buzzing away, slicing heedlessly through bone, penetrating into the core of some other human being.

Mr. Salvador could take his Gyrfalcon jet and his cars and his institutes and his hotel suites. He could take them all back to America. It wouldn't matter. This was the feeling that Dr. Radhakrishnan V.R.J.V.V. Gangadhar lived for.

All of the nurses and orderlies in this part of the barracks had risen uncertainly to their feet. "What are you waiting for!?" he snapped.

"This poor man has a pipe through his head! Let's get it out."

13

"I'm going to be real straight with you," Mel said.

"Somehow I'm not surprised," Mary Catherine said. They were sitting together at a corner table in an old-fashioned family-type Italian restaurant. The restaurant was across the street and down the block from the hospital where Mary Catherine had spent most of the last four years. When families of stricken patients had to eat, they gathered around the big circular tables here and glumly plunged their forks into deep, steaming dishes of lasagna, like surgeons around an operating table.

"You dad is not a happy camper right now," Mel continued. "And it's going to get worse in a week or two, when we have to come out and tell the public that he has suffered a stroke. I don't know how he's going to react."

She slapped her menu down on the table and stopped even pretending to read it. "Enough, enough," she said. "What the hell are you saying?"

"Your dad would rather die than live the way he is now," Mel said.

Mary Catherine kept looking and listening for a few seconds, until she finally realized that this was all there was to it. If Mel had been talking about anyone else, "he would rather die" would have been a figure of speech. But not with Dad. She could just imagine him, sitting down there in Tuscola, making the executive decision that it was time to die, and then formulating his plan. "That's enough," she said. "That's all you have to say." Then she closed her eyes and silently let tears run down her face for a half a minute or so.

She opened her eyes, rubbed her face with her napkin, blinked away the last tears. Mel was sitting with his hands folded together, patiently waiting for her to finish. Out of the corner of her eye she could see a hefty waitress loitering with her pad and pen. The help here knew how to deal with grief. The waitress was trying to figure out -when it was okay to approach the table.

"Okay, I'm ready to order," Mary Catherine said, louder than she had intended.

The waitress approached. Mel hurriedly snatched up his menu and began to scan it; he wasn't ready. Watching him, Mary Catherine suddenly felt a lot of affection for good old Mel, trying to pick out an entree, any entree, because Mary Catherine was ready to order.

"I'll have the fettucine with pesto and a club soda," Mary Catherine said.

"Some kind of baked noodle thing without any meat," Mel said. "Lasagna? Manicotti?" the waitress said. But Mel could not be bothered with details; he didn't hear her. "And a glass of white," he said, "You want a drink, Mary Catherine?"

"No thanks, I'm working," she said. Finally the knot went out of her throat and she felt better. She took a couple of deep breaths. "All clear," she said.

"You're handling it well," Mel said. "You're doing a good job of this."

"I suppose he has a little plan all worked out." "Yeah. The den. Sometime when there's no kids out in front of the house, I would guess."

"He'll probably use the big shotgun from Vietnam, right?" Mel shrugged. "Beats me. I'm. not privy to all his decisions." "You know, James and I always used to get into trouble when Patricia was babysitting us as a kid. And Mom and Dad would come home and be just shocked." Mary Catherine laughed out loud, blowing off tension. "Because Patricia was such a nice girl and why were we being so mean to her?" Mel laughed. "So now I'll have to go home and give Dad a hard time for wanting to shoot himself while Patricia's babysitting him." She heaved a big sigh, trying to throw off the aching feeling in her ribs. "But it's really hard to talk to him when he's in that - that whole situation he's in now."

"See, he's acutely aware of that. And that's why he made this decision."

"So why are you here?" she said. "Is this an official message from Dad?" Mel snorted. "You kidding? He'd kill me if he knew I was telling you this."

"Oh. I thought I was being given one last chance to go down and talk to him before he did it."

"No way. I think I caught him in the act. Lining up his shot," Mel said. "Now he's too embarrassed to actually do it for a while."

"Well ... of course I want him to live. But I have to admit killing himself now would be a lot more true to his nature."

"Absolutely," Mel said. "And it would give him a chance to get in a last dig at Patricia, which is incentive enough." Mary Catherine laughed. "But he's not gonna do it," Mel said.

"Why not?" It was unusual to think of Dad making up his mind to do something, and then holding back.

"There's one possibility we are investigating. A new therapy that might bring him back to where he was."

"I haven't heard of any such thing," Mary Catherine said. Mel set his briefcase up on the table and snapped it open. He pulled out a manila envelope and handed it to Mary Catherine.

Inside was a stack of a dozen or so research papers, mostly reprints from technical journals. On top was an eight-by-ten black-and-white photograph of a rakishly modern, high-tech structure on a bluff above the ocean. "What is this place?"

"The Radhakrishnan Institute. They do heavy-duty neurological research. Those papers describe some of the work they've been doing."

Mary Catherine set the photograph aside and began to flip through the research papers.

"I thought you might be interested in seeing some of that stuff. It's all gibberish to me," Mel said.

Mary Catherine frowned. "I'm familiar with these papers. I've seen them. All in the last three years."

"So?"

"Well, the stuff described here is all fairly basic research. I mean, in this one here, they're talking about a technique to grow baboon brain cells in vitro and then reimplant them in the baboon's brain."

"So?"

"So the date on the paper is three months ago. Which means it was probably written sometime last year."

"So?" Mel would continue to asking this question until hell froze over or he understood what she was getting at.

"So, it's like these guys just invented the wheel last year, and now they're claiming that they can make a car."

"You're saying it's a hell of a stretch between putting some new cells into a baboon's head, and fixing your dad."

"Exactly."

"How long would it take to cover that ground?"

"Well, I don't know. It's never been done before. But I would think it would take at least five or ten years, if everything went well."

"Why would they-"

"They're neurosurgeons, Mel. Neurosurgeons are the ultimate macho shitheads of the medical world. Nobody can stand them. Their solution to everything is cold steel. But they can never really do anything."

"What do you mean? Cutting a hole in a guy's brain seems like doing a hell of a lot."

"But there's no cure for most neuro problems. They can chop out a tumor or a hematoma. But they can't really cure the important problems, and, because they are macho shitheads, that drives them crazy. Clearly, that's the motivation behind this research. And the inflated claims."

Mel pondered this one for a while.

Mary Catherine sipped on her club soda and watched Mel ponder it. As usual, it seemed that his affair had a lot of dimensions that he wasn't telling her about. A gray winter light was shining in through the window, bringing all of the wrinkles in Mel's face into high relief, and suddenly the look on his face seemed frighteningly intense to her. "This is a tough one," he finally said, shaking his head. "Too much emotional shit getting in the way. Can't think straight."

"What are you thinking, Mel?"

Mel shook his head. "Five or ten years. See, I haven't really talked to anyone yet. All I get is feelers. These feelers are so subtle I can't even tell if they are really there. Like this here" - he pointed to the photograph and the papers - "came in the guise of a fund-raising mailing. They wanted to now if your dad wanted to contribute to this thing. But it's no coincidence. I know that for damn sure."

"Have they offered to fix Dad's brain, or not?"

"Absolutely not, and you can bet they never will," Mel said. "They will wait for us to ask them. That way, if it goes wrong, it was our idea. But from the way they are acting, you would think that they were ready to put him under the knife tomorrow."

"So here is the sixty-four thousand dollar question," Mary Catherine said. "Does Dad believe that these people can fix him up? Does he believe it enough to keep him from killing himself?"

"For now, definitely. He won't do it today, or tomorrow. But..." Mel stopped in midsentence.

"But if I blab my big mouth and say that this is highly speculative and might be five or ten years down the road, that's different," Mary Catherine said.

"I don't like to put this pressure on you," Mel said, "but yeah, I think you have a point there." He reached across the table, grabbed the photograph, and held it up. "This keeps him alive. It's his hope. It's all he has right now."

"Well, that's good," Mary Catherine said.

Mel gave her a penetrating look. "How is it good?"

She was taken aback by the question. "It keeps him alive, like you said. And even if it does take five or ten years before this surgery can be performed, we can keep his hope alive until then. And then, maybe someday, we'll have him back."

Mel stared at her morosely. "Shit. You've got it too."

"Got what?"

"That same look on your face as Willy had when I told him about this." Mel slapped the picture facedown on the table, broke eye contact, looked out the window, started rubbing his chin.

"What are you thinking about?" she prompted him after a few minutes.

"Same thing as ever. Power." Mel said. "Power and how it works." He heaved a big sigh. "The power that some unheard-of thing called the Radhakrishnan Institute is suddenly wielding over the Cozzanos." He heaved another big sigh. "And over me."

"Your emotions getting in the way?"

"Yeah."

"Get a detached opinion, then."

"That's a good idea. I should talk to Sipes down there at the U."

"Don't. Sipes is a big-time researcher in these fields."

"So he's a good guy to talk to, right?"

"Not necessarily. That means he has theories of his own. Theories that may compete with Radhakrishnan's."

"Good point. Very devious thinking by your standards," Mel said with cautious admiration. "Why don't you go check it out yourself?"

Mary Catherine was startled. She blushed slightly. "I thought the idea was to be objective," she said.

"Objective is nice, it's a cute idea," Mel said, "but there's nothing like family, is there?"

"Well-"

"Suppose we did find some supposedly objective doctor to check this Radhakrishnan thing out for us. Would you really take his word for it?"

"No," she admitted, "I'd want to go and see this thing for myself, before Dad went under the knife."

"Done. I'll hire you, on an hourly basis, as a medical consultant for Cozzano Charities," Mel said. "Your job will be to investigate the medical qualifications of research programs that we are considering donating to. And right now we are considering a donation to the Radhakrishnan Institute."

"Mel, I'm a resident. I can't take time off."

"That," Mel said, "is a political problem between Cozzano Charities and the director of your fine hospital. And I have been known to involve myself in politics from time to time."

14

During the wintry depths of his depression, his seasonal affective disorder in Elton, New Mexico, Dr. Radhakrishnan would have settled for any kind of surgery at all. He would sit in his house, looking out the windows into the dim blue light, which would sift down from the sky like a gradual snowfall, and watch the neighbors' dogs sniff and dig into snow-banks, and wonder how one went about getting one's hands on a dog, and whether it was technically illegal to do brain surgery on one, just for practice. Now that he was back in the saddle, though, he was starting to get picky. In this phase of the project, they were working on Mr. Easyrider and Mr. Scatflinger, not their real names. The samples of brain tissue that had been overnight-expressed to Dr. Radhakrishnan in Elton had belonged to these two men.

It was not entirely clear what their real names were. Both of the patients were in the category of found objects. Neither one was neurologically equipped to identify himself, and if either of them had been in the habit of carrying identification, it had been removed by other persons before they had come under the purview of the authorities. Before Dr. Radhakrishnan arrived to impose some sense of decorum on the Barracks, the Americans (naturally) had come up with these names. Like everything else that bubbled up over the rim of the icky cultural stewpot of America, the names were pervasive and sticky and could not be scrubbed off once applied. Actually, for a while they had referred to Mr. Scatflinger as Mr. Shitpitcher, but this was completely unacceptable - the nurses could not even bring themselves to say it - and so Dr. Radhakrishnan had changed it.

Mr. Easyrider had been run over by a motorcycle. They could not be positive about this, since there were no witnesses to the event, but the motorcycle track running over the side of his head provided telling circumstantial evidence. The resulting trauma had caused a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which is to say that a blood vessel had burst inside his head and bled internally, killing part of the brain.

Mr. Scatflinger, nee Shitpitcher, had been employed in heaving cow manure on to a trailer. The trailer had tipped, an avalanche had taken place, and his legs had been underneath it. There were major broken bones. A fat embolism formed at the site of one of these breaks, passed up into his heart, and then apparently crossed over from one side of his heart to the other through a small congenital hole. From there it was pumped straight up his carotid artery into his brain where it caused a massive stroke. This was known as a paradoxical embolism.

If Dr. Radhakrishnan were to take certain doctrines of his religion absolutely literally, he would not be allowed to have any contact with either Mr. Easyrider or Mr. Scatflinger. Yet today he was going to carve great holes in their skulls and implant fresh biochips. Of course he was wearing gloves, so technically speaking he wasn't coming into contact with them. But this was a technicality.

Anyone who adhered, at least nominally, to any religion that was invented millennia ago by people who ran around in burlap and believed that the Earth was built on the back of a turtle - that is, any of the major religions - ran into little dilemmas like those on a regular basis. The Christians practiced ritual cannibalism. When­ever he flew between the West and India there was always at least one Muslim on the plane who had to get out the in-flight magazine, check out the route map on the back page, triangulate against the position of the sun, and try to figure out in which direction Mecca lay. And when the ambulance had brought a Chiricahua Apache in to the Elton State University hospitals with a severe brain bleed that needed emergency surgery, Dr. Radhakrishnan had not had time to consult all of the religious authorities in order to figure out whether Hinduism allowed him to touch an Apache. He just gloved up and dove in there. At a certain point one had to just shrug, stop looking over one's shoulder theologically, and get on with life. Perhaps in some later life, at some more mystical plane of existence, Dr. Radhakrishnan would find out whether or not he had broken any cosmic rules by touching an Apache in New Mexico, or by touching Messrs. Easyrider and Scatflinger here in Delhi. In the meantime, like everyone else, he had to translate the arcane precepts of his ancient religion into a somewhat looser and vaguer set of rules called ethics, or values.

"I am waiting for the biochips," he said into the telephone. "Waiting and waiting and waiting."

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line, or what passed for silence. Indian telephones had a sort of organic quality. Not the sterile silence of American fiber-optic linkups. On one of these phones, one felt that one was plugged into the electro­magnetic fabric of the entire universe; the phone system just one huge antenna picking up emanations from other telephones, tele­vision and radio stations, power lines, automobile ignition systems, quasars in deep space, and stirring them together into a thick sonic curry. This is what Dr. Radhakrishnan listened to while he was waiting for Zeldo to come up with another excuse for not being ready.

"There's just one more bug that we really ought to get rid of," Zeldo said. "Twenty of the best guys in the business are going over this code line by line."

"Twenty? You only have four people there!"

"Most of the work is being done in California. Over a satellite link," Zeldo said.

''Well," Dr. Radhakrishnan said, "while your team is sipping espresso in Marin County, my team is standing in a hallway here at AIIMS with two brain-damaged patients on gurneys, waiting."

A long silence, the sonic curry poured forth from the telephone. "I don't know what to tell you," Zeldo said. "It's not quite ready."

"Did you hear about the programmer's wife?" Dr. Radhakrishnan said. "She is still a virgin. Her husband just sits on the edge of the bed every night and tells her how great it's going to be."

Zeldo did not laugh. Dr. Radhakrishnan was beginning to get that tingly feeling in his hands.

He stuck his head out of the office and looked down the hallway. Mr. Scatflinger was lying on the gurney, quiescent, his head freshly shaved, blue lines drawn on his scalp like the rhumb lines of an ancient navigator.

"Can you or can you not reprogram this thing remotely, after implantation?"

"We can modify the software. That's how we're programming it as we speak. It's sitting in the culture tank and we're talking to it over the radio."

"It's finished."

"No."

"Put the culture tank into the truck and get it over here now. That is an order."

The chip consisted of a silicon part - the part that Zeldo was responsible for - surrounded by an inert teflon shell, connected on either end to brain cells that had been grown in a tank in Seattle. The only way to keep those brain cells alive was to supply them with oxygen and nutrients. The biochip sat in a tank full of a care­fully pH-balanced, temperature-regulated, oxygenated chemical solution that Zeldo and the other Americans referred to as "chicken soup." The soup gave the brain cells everything they needed to stay alive, except for intellectual stimulation. The chip was only a couple of centimeters long in its entirety and so the tank itself wasn't that large, just a few liters in size. But it was attached to a variety of machines to keep it properly balanced and regulated, so the apparatus as a whole ended up being roughly the size of a vending machine. It rolled around on oversized rubber wheels, and it had enough built-in backup battery power so that it could be unplugged from the wall for up to half an hour. All of this portability was needed, for the time being, because of the far-flung nature of this enterprise. The chips had first been incarnated in Seattle, placed into this tank, and then rolled on board a specially chartered GODS jet, where the support systems had drawn power from the airplane's generators. From the Indira Gandhi Inter­national Airport, the whole mess had been transported to the Barracks for debugging. Now it had to be shipped down the road to AIIMS for the actual surgical procedure. Each time it was trundled from one place to another it had to survive on battery power for a few minutes.

Zeldo and his cohorts referred to the apparatus as the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. They hauled it around in the back of a truck. The truck poked its way slowly down the Delhi Ring Road, pulled off into the parking lots of AIIMS, and backed up to a loading dock.

The back door flew open and there were Zeldo and his hackers, surrounding the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, all blinking lights and bubbling tubes.

There was an interval of half an hour or so, during which the patients were prepared for surgery, the operating room people got scrubbed and gloved, and Zeldo and his crew got the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari transferred across the hospital to the operating theater, leapfrogging from one power outlet to the next, down hallways and up elevators. Then Dr. Radhakrishnan just had to perform a couple of operations.

It was strange, and possibly ludicrous, to be doing both Mr. Easyrider and Mr. Scatflinger at the same time. Each operation was a major event in itself. But there were many strange and ludicrous things about the way the Radhakrishnan Institute was currently functioning. As they went over the plans for this day, they had all shared a creepy, unspoken feeling that they were extending them­selves years beyond where they really ought to be, and that many things might go wrong.

The operations were conceptually simple. Incisions were made along the lines that had been drawn on the patients' shave heads. Flaps of scalp were peeled back and the bleeding was cauterized or clamped off. When the actual skull was exposed, Dr. Radhakrishnan cut through it with a bone saw.

A polygon of skull, a trap door of sorts, was cut into the side of the head and saved for later use. Still, the brain itself was not exposed; they looked through the hole at a tough inner membrane, the brain's final layer of protection. When this was flapped out of the way, they were looking at actual brain matter.

"It was a debacle. I am personally ashamed. I will never do anything like that again. The level of incompetence makes me physically ill. I may shoot myself," Dr. Radhakrishnan was saying.

"Have a drink," Mr. Salvador said. This was easy to arrange because they were sitting in the bar of the Imperial.

"When I am tense I bite my lip. Today I think I have swallowed half of my own blood supply."

"Think of it as opening day for a new business venture," Mr. Salvador said. "It's always a debacle."

"Even debacle does not do justice to this day," Dr. Radhakrishnan said. "It was an apocalypse."

Mr. Salvador shrugged. "That's why we make mistakes, so we can learn from them."

"One gets very impatient, doing research for years and years. The pace is so gradual. After a while you say, "I wish I could just get on with it and put one of these things into a human brain and see what happens. But this business today reminds me of why we take years and years to get ready for these things."

"The patients are both alive. All's well that ends well."

A waiter came by and gave Dr. Radhakrishnan another drink. Mr. Salvador tossed some rupees on to the table. "Why don't you take that with you?" he said. "I have something to show you."

"What?"

"Let's go for a spin."

The former site of the Ashok Theatre had been surrounded by a barricade twenty feet high. In places it consisted of chain-link fence with tarps stretched across it. In places it was pieced together with scraps of wood. In and of itself the fence was a considerable invest­ments; the materials that went into it could have housed thousands. Things did not become much clearer after Mr. Salvador and Dr. Radhakrishnan had gotten past the guard at the gate. Most of the site was filled with a scaffolding. It was just a dense three-dimensional web of steel, with some parts of it additionally shored up with wooden beams. So far most of the work was being done in iron; the scaffolding was intertangled with another web of reinforcing rods.

The density of activity was incredible. The site seemed to con­tain several workers per square yard, all doing something as fast as they could. Several cranes were active, moving giant prefabricated constructs of reinforcing rod into place.

"All reinforced concrete. So it looks like hell until we pour," Mr. Salvador said.

Dr. Radhakrishnan would have gotten lost in a second, but Mr. Salvador knew his way through the tangle. He led him fearlessly into a passage that cut through the heart of it, straight in toward the center, brushing past workers the entire way. He noticed along the way that he was now walking on planks. Looking down between gaps, he could see straight down one or two stories. The place was extraordinarily well lit with thousands of electric lights strung on long yellow cords. Hundreds more workers were down below them, bending more steel rods into place. Large amounts of concrete had already been poured down there.

As they approached the middle, Dr. Radhakrishnan could see glimpses of more concrete through gaps in the scaffolding. It was a sort of squat concrete obelisk, rectangular in cross-section, rising straight up out of the foundation below them, up to a height of three stories above their heads. It was large enough, perhaps, to put a volleyball court on each level. The walls had a few rectangular openings on each level where, presumably, this part of the building would later be connected to adjacent rooms or hallways. Thousands of reinforcing bars sprouted from the walls at the levels of the floors-to-be and along the locations of future walls, giving the whole tower a bristly, hairy appearance. The bare concrete walls, still so new and clean they were almost white, had already been partly obscured by conduits, plumbing, and ductwork that grew up and snaked around the structure like tropical vines climbing a tree. Craning his neck to look up towards the top, Dr. Radhakrishnan could see the louvered enclosures of large pieces of machinery mounted on the roof, probably air conditioners and electrical generators.

The obelisk was connected to the surrounding scaffold work by a couple of catwalks, giving it the appearance of a keep in the center of a medieval castle. When they walked across the bridges into the building, they passed through some kind of a cultural divide. Everyone working inside here was Korean, Japanese, or American and they were speaking English to each other with varying degrees of proficiency. Some of them were wearing smart, clean coveralls, and some of them were wearing ties. Two or three big Calyx computer systems were already up and running, nice ones with huge color screens, and engineers were using them to zoom in on various subsystems.

"This, of course, is the essential core of the operation," Mr. Salvador said. "The only part that you will really need in order to continue your research. It will be ready to use in a week. As long as you don't mind walking through an active construction site in order to reach it, that is."

"Not at all," Dr. Radhakrishnan said.

15

Merely scooping out a hole in a man's brain and dropping in a biochip was not enough. It was like assaulting a supercomputer with a Skilsaw and then throwing in a handful of loose silicon chips.

The biochip had to be connected into the brain tissue in billions or trillions of different ways. All of the connections were micro­scopic and could not be made by the hand of any surgeon. They had to grow.

Brain cells didn't grow. But the connections between them did. The network of linkages was constantly shifting and reconnecting itself in a process that was usually described as "learning." Dr. Radhakrishnan did not really care for this terminology because it contained a value judgement. It implied that every time new synapses were formed inside a person's mind it was because they were memorizing Shakespeare or being taught how to integrate transcendental functions. Of course, in reality most of the internal rewiring that went on in people's brains took place in response to watching game shows on television, being beaten up by family members, figuring out the cheapest place to buy cigarettes, and being conditioned not to mix plaids with stripes.

As soon as it had seemed like it was a safe bet that Mr. Easyrider and Mr. Scatflinger were going to live for while, they were trans­ferred back to the Barracks in a specially equipped ambulance. They were laid side by side in a separate room that had been built onto one end of Building 2. They were connected up to numerous machines, wired into a support system. Each of them had a red polygon on his head, a U-shaped welt, hairy with black sutures, marking the boundary of the flap that had been peeled back during surgery.

In the center of the area outlined by the surgical scar, a bundle of lines was plugged into the patient's head. It passed through the middle of the flake of skull that had been neatly sawed out by Dr. Radhakrishnan's bone saw. While Dr. Radhakrishnan had occupied himself with implanting the biochip, a lesser surgeon - more of a technician, really - had drilled a few holes through the disembodied chunk of skull and implanted a plastic connector. The connector was about the size of a dime and was really a cluster of smaller connections: half a dozen tiny tubes for passing fluids in and out, and a miniature, fifty-pin electrical plug, a nearly microscopic version of the port on the back of a computer. Since most communication between the biochip and the outside world was supposed to happen over the radio, only a few of these fifty pins were hooked up to the biochip itself. Most of them were hooked up to sensors that monitored the patient's condition and to the electrostimulus system that was supposed to encourage the growth of new connections between brain and biochip.

When the operation was finished, this connector peeked through the skin, somewhat in the fashion of a wall socket. The researchers could then interface with the patient by sticking a matching plug into the socket; when it was stuck in properly, all of the fluid and electrical connections were made in an instant. So many tubes and wires were crammed together in this bottleneck that they seemed to explode from the side of the patient's head. Some of the connections ran directly to various pieces of bedside machinery that monitored pressure inside the skull, delivered drugs, or helped to oxygenate the brain tissue in the biochip. Others were taped to the head of the bed, from which they ran over to the nearest wall, passed through a hole, and ran through a conduit that connected the two buildings.

The people in Building 1 saw Mr. Easyrider and Mr. Scatflinger as media entities, nothing more. No odors, no fluids, just images on TV monitors, tracings on oscilloscopes, graphics on their Calyx workstations, and the occasional disembodied sound effect coming out of a speaker. This, Dr. Radhakrishnan reflected, made it a lot easier to deal with them objectively.

There was not much to do for the first few days. The brain cells in the biochip had not yet had time to connect themselves up to the patients' brain, so the chip was neurologically inert, just a dead piece of shrapnel embedded in the head. Then, one morning at about three o'clock, computer screens all over Building 1 suddenly came alive as a neuron in Mr. Scatflinger's brain hooked up with a neuron on the fringe of the biochip.

As soon as Dr. Radhakrishnan got there, they popped the corks on a few bottles of champagne and then stood under the monitor for a while, watching the data stream by. Zeldo did some typing on his workstation and brought up a new window on the screen, this one showing a running graph of the brain activity.

"Someone go shine a light in his eyes," Dr. Radhakrishnan said.

"Yes, Doctor!" said one of his Indian grad students. He ran out of the building, pulling a penlight from his pocket. A few moments later the grad student was visible on the closed-circuit monitor that had been showing live coverage of Mr. Scatflinger from Building 2. All eyes flicked back and forth between the closed-circuit set and the computer monitor as the grad student leaned over the sleeping Mr. Scatflinger, peeled back one of his eyelids with his thumb, and shone the penlight into it.

The graph jumped. The crowd went wild.

"Well done, Doctor," someone was saying. It was Mr. Salvador, shaking his hand, offering a cigar. "Remarkable success, especially under the circumstances." Around nine a.m., a burst of activity showed up on Mr. Easyrider's heretofore quiescent monitor. But even in the corner of his eye, Dr. Radhakrishnan could see that something was wrong. The signals coming in from the biochip showed no clear pattern in terms of intensity or duration.

"Glitches," Dr. Radhakrishnan said.

"But a whole hell of a lot of glitches," Zeldo said.

"Glicherama," said one of the other Americans. Dr. Radhakrishnan bit his lip, knowing that for the rest of his career, this phenomenon, whenever it occurred, would be referred to as Glicherama.

Sudden movement caught his eye. He looked over at the closed-circuit monitor for Mr. Easyrider and saw, instead of the patient, the backsides of several nurses who were standing around him, working feverishly.

By the time Dr. Radhakrishnan made it over to Building 2, Mr. Easyrider was dead. His heart had stopped beating. They wheeled out the defib cart and shocked him a couple of times, trying to get a stable rhythm back, but in the end they could get nothing but bad rhythms on the scope, and finally no rhythm at all.

When they were sure he was dead, when they had closed his eyes, rolled away the cart, and washed their hands, Dr. Radhakrishnan picked up the intercom to Building 1. "Are you getting any signals from the chip?" he said. He asked the question out of purely academic interest; supposedly there was as bit of random electrical activity in the brain after death. "It's been dead for a couple of minutes," Zeldo said. "Completely dead?"

"Completely dead. We didn't think to include a surge protector."

"Surge protector?"

"Yeah. To protect the chip from sparks and lightning bolts, you know."

"I haven't seen any lightning."

"You held the lightning in your hands. You shocked him, man. That jolt from the defibrillator blew our chip to kingdom come." They did a postmortem more or less on the spot. A sterile environment was not required for an autopsy, so they partitioned off one corner of the room to prevent other patients from seeing what was happening, and Dr. Radhakrishnan took Mr. Easyrider apart, piece by piece, paying special attention to the head.

Building 2 was a distracting work environment because it was full of head cases - old ones dying of natural causes and new ones being wheeled in all the time, from all over the subcontinent. Brain injury sometimes left people as vegetables, but in some cases it could cause bizarre behavior, and over the brief course of this project they had already seen their quota of screeches and headbangers. In the middle of Dr. Radhakrishnan's autopsy, they apparently brought in a new one. A loud, coarse voice began to echo off the tin ceiling:

"WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA..."

It was no worse than a room full of excited baboons. He continued working, narrating his observations into a tape recorder; but he had to speak a little more loudly now because underneath his words was a constant background noise of WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA...

The cause of death was obvious enough. Mr. Easyrider's body had rejected the implant. Dr. Radhakrishnan tried to be clinical about it.

WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA... "The organic portion of the biochip shows pronounced atrophy ..."

WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA... "The inorganic or silicon portion of the biochip is virtually rattling around loose inside the skull..." That was not very scientific. He took a deep breath.

WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA...

"There is considerable scarring and atrophy in the portions of the brain adjacent to the implant." His head was spinning. He was tired. He just wanted to sit down and have a drink. "Conclusion: the host rejected the graft."

He was becoming conscious of another irrelevant sensory input besides the stream of WUBBAs: he was smelling perfume. It was not something that would really pass for perfume in India, where people knew as much about tastes and smells as Americans knew about heavy metal music. This was some kind of tedious lavender-and-roses concoction, something stupid and English.

"It appears that necrosis started at the site of the implant and spread to the brainstem - leading to the patient's demise." WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA... "Doc?" someone said. Zeldo.

He looked up at Zeldo, feeling very tired. Zeldo had pulled the curtain aside and was now gaping at the bloody, dismembered corpse of Mr. Easyrider. He was not a medical person and was not inured to this kind of thing.

Dr. Radhakrishnan turned to face Zeldo, bumping the table with his hip. The hemisphere of Mr. Easyrider's skull rocked back and forth a little bit on the tabletop.

"Two things," Zeldo said.

"Yes?"

WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA...

"There's a problem with Scatflinger. And there's a lady here to see you."

All of a sudden, the fact that he had gotten up at three in the morning was really getting to Dr. Radhakrishnan.

Maybe these were simple problems, easy to fix. He emerged from the autopsy room still wearing his rubber gloves, smeared with blood and gray matter. If this was just going to take a minute, there was no point in getting ungloved and then regloving later. "First things first," he said, and led Zeldo toward the room that, as of this morning, Mr. Scatflinger now had all to himself.

As he approached the door, the sound of WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA grew louder.

No. It couldn't be.

He opened the door. Half of his staff was gathered around the bed.

Mr. Scatflinger, who had been unable to do anything except he in bed since his accident, was now sitting bolt upright in bed.

He had been totally aphasic as well, unable to make a sound. But now he was saying, "WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA" as loudly as he could.

Everyone was looking at Dr. Radhakrishnan to see how he was going to react.

"Well," he said to his staff, "I think one can make the case that being able to say 'WUBBA WUBBA' is better than not being able to say anything at all, and that, at least in a limited sense, we have done Mr. Scatflinger here a great service."

"Excuse me! Are you the gentleman in charge?" someone said. It was a lady's voice. Not just a female voice, but really a lady's voice.

Dr. Radhakrishnan turned around slowly, half-paralyzed by an unexplainable sense of fear and loathing. The odor of lavender and roses was quite strong now.

He was looking directly into a bosom of Himalayan proportions, stoutly contained in some kind of undergarment and covered with a flowery print dress. His gaze traveled from the bottom to the top of the bosom, changing focus the whole way, and then encountered a soft, pale, yet sturdy neck. Above that was a face.

It was a nice English lady's face, but too big. It was like looking at the young Victoria through a big Fresnel lens. And on top, where custom would dictate some kind of a tightly curled, chemically induced permanent wave, was something altogether out of place, a short, simple, straight, and maybe just a big shaggy kind of haircut. Certainly not an ugly way to wear one's hair, but just a little bit out of keeping with the social stature that was implied by her accent.

"Madam," he said, "I am Dr. Radhakrishnan." He extended his hand.

"Lady Wilburdon. How do you do," she said, shaking it.

"Oh, god," Zeldo said, and ran away, gagging audibly.

A gasp came from the staff. Dr. Radhakrishnan felt the back of his neck get hot. He was tired, he was stressed, and he had forgotten about the gloves. This Lady Wilburdon creature now had Mr. Easyrider's brains all over her hand.

There was brief moment of utter despair as he tried to think of a way to draw this fact to her attention without making the breach of etiquette even worse than it already was.

"Oh, it's really quite all right," she said, fluttering her bloody hand dismissively. "I worked in the refugee camps of Kurdistan for a month, at the height of the insurrection, so a bit of a mess does not trouble me at all. And I wouldn't dream of having you interrupt your work just to shake hands with an interloper."

Dr. Radhakrishnan was looking around uneasily, hoping to make eye contact with someone who knew who this lady was, why she was here, how she had gotten in past all of those Sikh commandos at the front gate, all of those .50-caliber machine-gun nests.

Behind her he could see another woman, a smaller, auntish lady, conversing with Mr. Salvador. Mr. Salvador kept glancing at the backside of Lady Wilburdon; he wanted to be here, not there, but clearly was having trouble extricating himself from polite small talk with this other woman.

WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA...

"You are ... a guest of Mr. Salvador?" he said.

"Yes. My secretary, Miss Chapman, and I were passing through Delhi on an inspection tour and we thought we would pop in and see how Bucky's project was coming along."

"Bucky?"

"Yes. Bucky. Buckminster Salvador."

"His name is Bucky?"

"Buckminster. The boys at school used to call him B.M. for short, but we suppressed that. It was uncouth and cruel."

"School?"

"The Lady Wilburdon School for Spoiled boys in Newcastle upon Tyne."

"I didn't know there was such a thing as a school for spoiled boys," Dr. Radhakrishnan said numbly.

"Oh, yes. There are a lot of them in England, you know. And all of their parents are desperate for an environment that will give them structure ..."

"That's quite enough," Mr. Salvador said, interrupting. Dr. Radhakrishnan was shocked to see the look on his face; suddenly he was pale and sweating. His mask of total aplomb had been shattered, he was rolling his eyes, clearly out of control.

"Quite enough of what, Bucky?" Lady Wilburdon said, locking eyes with Mr. Salvador, who looked very short standing next to her.

"Quite enough of having you stand around in this unpleasant place when I should be treating you to a lavish dinner along Connaught Circus!" Mr. Salvador improvised. He was close to coming completely unhinged.

WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA WUBBA... "Oh, but I can go into some restaurant and order a meal whenever I please. It's not every day I get the opportunity to tour an advanced neurological research facility," Lady Wilburdon said.

"Tour?" Dr. Radhakrishnan said.

She seemed taken aback. "Yes. Well, I thought, as long as I was here ..."

"Naturally you can have a look around, Lady Wilburdon," Mr. Salvador said, shooting Dr. Radhakrishnan a panicky warning look. Clearly, resistance was out of the question.

Suddenly Lady Wilburdon was looking past Dr. Radhakrishnan, over his shoulder, and a completely new expression had come over her face. It was a wonderful, sweet, lovely, maternal expression, like a mother greeting her children home from school.

"Hello, sir, and how do you do? I am so sorry for intruding."

She was looking at Mr. Scatflinger.

Mr. Scatflinger was looking right back at her. Staring her straight in the eye. There was even a hint of a smile on his face. "Wubba wubba," he said.

"Very well, thank you. Perhaps Dr. Radhakrishnan would be so good as to introduce us?"

"Yes. Lady Wilburdon, this is, uh, Mr. Banerjee. Mr. Banerjee, Lady Wilburdon."

"It's so nice to make your acquaintance."

"Wubba wubba wubba."

Mr. Salvador was taking advantage of this break in the con­versation to sit on the edge of an empty bed and clamp one hand over his face.

"I take it that Mr. Banerjee will soon be undergoing this miraculous new surgical procedure that Bucky was telling me about."

"Wubba wubba wubba."

"Actually, he has already undergone it," Dr. Radhakrishnan said. No point in dissembling.

She was just a trifle taken aback. "I see."

"Before the operation he could not sit up in bed or speak. Now, as you see, he can sit up for prolonged periods, and he has developed the ability to say 'wubba wubba.' " "Wubba wubba wubba," Mr. Scatflinger said. "Do you suppose that, as time goes on, he will develop the ability to say other sorts of things?"

"Absolutely. You see, the implant has not been patterned yet. There is a powerful computer inside his head. But right now, the connections are scrambled. The computer has no program. We will have to train him to speak over a period of weeks or months."

"I see. So after the operation, there is a prolonged period of rehabilitation." "Exactly."

"And the new facility you are building will have such facilities, which, as I notice, are lacking here." "Precisely."

"Wubba wubba wubba wubba," Mr. Scatflinger said. "It was so nice to have met you, Mr. Banerjee," Lady Wilburdon said, "and I wish you the best of luck in the course of your therapy." She stepped back out of Mr. Scatflinger's room, which obliged Dr. Radhakrishnan to follow her. "We have high hopes for him," he said.

"I am sure that you do," Lady Wilburdon said. "But I see that another one of your patients has not been as fortunate."

She was looking over at Mr. Easyrider, sprawled out on a bloody table with his brains spilling out of his head, the cup of his skull upended next to him.

Mr. Salvador was still collecting his wits, which had been blown all over the Indo-Gangetic plain. Dr. Radhakrishnan had to handle this himself.

The woman had to be important. He had never heard of her, but with some people, you could just tell that they were important.

"The name of Lady Wilburdon is famous throughout the world," he said.

"I am the seventh person to bear that title," she said, "and by far the least distinguished."

"You evidently travel quite a bit, inspecting things."

"Hundreds of institutions throughout the world, yes." Then you will appreciate, perhaps better than anyone, that the patients who come into this place are often in very grave condition." "I see that very clearly."

"It is not unusual for them to pass away while they are under our care."

"Yes," Lady Wilburdon said, "but this poor gentleman passed away after you performed the operation, did he not?"

"Ha, ha!" Dr. Radhakrishnan said. "You are astonishingly per­ceptive." No point in denying it, now. "How could you possibly have known that?" Maybe this woman had deeper connections than he had supposed.

"I am not an anatomical expert," Lady Wilburdon said, "but as I cast my eye over the gentleman, I see that you have sawed off the top of his head and extracted a large gray sort of thing that I take to be his brain."

"Of course, you are right."

"And I have taken the liberty of assuming that the distinguished director of this institute would not bother personally to perform a detailed autopsy on a patient who had expired of causes that were merely incidental."

"Infection," Dr. Radhakrishnan said. "His surgical wounds became infected with a nosocomial microbe, which is to say, a bug that he picked up in the hospital."

"I am familiar with the terminology," Lady Wilburdon said, and exchanged an amused look with her female companion.

Finally Mr. Salvador had recovered sufficiently to weigh in.

"Infections are always a terrible problem in brain surgery," he said.

"That is why we operate out of these buildings," Dr. Radhakrishnan lied. "Because they are not hospitals per se, the chance of nosocomial infections is greatly reduced."

"But we still must perform all of the surgical procedures at AIIMS," Mr. Salvador said.

"And this is where he picked up the fatal organism," Dr. Radhakrishnan concluded. He and Mr. Salvador exchanged a triumphal look, trying to shore each other up.

"Then I shall be extremely careful to wash up," Lady Wilburdon said, looking at her bloody hand, "now that I too have been infected with this very deadly pathogen."

"Yes. We should all probably do that," Dr. Radhakrishnan said, "before we spread the infection to Mr. Singh or any of the other patients." This phase of the lying process was known as backfilling.

The backfilling process continued as Dr. Radhakrishnan and Lady Wilburdon scrubbed themselves in the sink that had been set up at one end of the building. Mr. Salvador and the lady's com­panion, Miss Chapman, washed their hands too, for good measure, to ensure that the fatal infection did not spread through the ward. Lady Wilburdon obviously knew a thing or two about washing up and threw herself into the process at a frighteningly vigorous pitch, running a stiff plastic brush back and forth under her fingernails with the speed of an automatic paint shaker, spraying a fountain of pink suds into the air. She scrubbed herself all the way to elbows, like a surgeon.

"You must forgive us for handling your visit so awkwardly and discourteously," Mr. Salvador ventured, "as this is the first time that anyone has ever come to visit any of our patients." "Ooh, how terribly sad," said Miss Chapman. "I shall relay news of this situation to the Lady Wilburdon Organisation for the Visitation of Destitute Invalids here in Delhi," Lady Wilburdon said. "Arrangements can be made-" "Oh, we really couldn't ask-"

"Emotional factors are terribly important. Loneliness can kill just as surely as nosocomial infections."

"No," Dr. Radhakrishnan said. He had to draw the line some­where. "You are very generous. But I must rule it out on medical grounds. Later, when we have the permanent facility constructed, perhaps we can arrange for routine visitation."

Mr. Salvador cringed visibly. Lady Wilburdon got just a bit sniffy. "Well," she said, "I count myself fortunate that I was able to come in and have a lovely visit before this very strict policy was imposed."

"As you will understand, we did not have to impose a policy until now."

Mr. Salvador was trying to patch it all up. "But if you can provide me with a forwarding address in England, I will keep you apprised of our progress."

"England?" Lady Wilburdon said. "Oh, no. We shall be here in India for another month at least."

"Oh. Well, that's delightful news. Delightful." "Of course, we will be all over the subcontinent, but sooner or later we always come back to Delhi."

"Then I shall look forward to dinner with you on at least one occasion," Mr. Salvador said weakly.

"When does the next fellow, Mr. Singh, have his operation?" "We have it scheduled for Wednesday."

"Four days from now," Miss Chapman said. She took an oversized appointment calendar, a desktop model, from her tote bag, and opened it up. "Mr. Singh has his brainwork done," she mumbled to herself, penciling it in.

Meanwhile, Lady Wilburdon was reading over her companion's shoulder. "Tomorrow we leave for Calcutta, to inspect the Lady Wilburdon Institute for the Rehabilitation of Syphilitic Lepers." Both men drew sharp breaths.

"Can they be rehabilitated?" Mr. Salvador said. He seemed astonished, verging on slightly amused.

"Syphilitic lepers are easy," Lady Wilburdon said, "compared to spoiled boys."

Mr. Salvador turned red and shut up, leaving Dr. Radhakrishnan all alone to terminate the conversation. "Feel free to phone when you return to Delhi," he said. "Telephone?"

"Yes. No visitation, remember."

"But Mr. Singh will be having his operation in the new facility, will he not?"

"Oh. Yes, that's right. It should be ready by then." "So he will recover in the new facility as well." Dr. Radhakrishnan could only nod.

"See you in a few days," Miss Chapman said, snapping her appointment book shut and beaming at them cheerily. The two women bustled out and climbed into a waiting car.

Mr. Salvador spun on his heel, went straight across to Building 1, and pulled a bottle of gin out of his desk. He and Dr. Radhakrishnan sat down across from each other, wordlessly, and began to drink it, straight, from paper cups. After a minute or two, Zeldo came over and joined them. This was a little troubling in and of itself, because Zeldo was some kind of a puritanical health freak. Drinking straight gin from a paper cup was not his style at all.

"What was that?" Dr. Radhakrishnan finally said, when he and Mr. Salvador, or Bucky, or B.M. as he was called by his school chums, both had a few ounces of ethanol pumping through their systems.

Mr. Salvador threw up his hands. "What could I possibly say to you verbally that would add to the impression you have already received?"

"She knows you."

Mr. Salvador sighed. "My father was Argentine, of German and Italian ancestry. My mother was British. One of our homes was in England and that is where I went to school. Once or twice a year, she would come seeping through the place to inspect it. She would sit in the back of a classroom for a few minutes and watch. Made all the teachers nervous as hell. Students too. She even made the custodians nervous."

"You had dealings with her then?"

"None. Never. How she could possibly remember my name is a complete mystery to me. She must have a photographic memory. She is a freak of nature," he finally concluded, belaboring the obvious.

Dr. Radhakrishnan said nothing. He had the feeling that Mr. Salvador lied to him quite a bit. But this seemed a particularly obvious lie. Mr. Salvador had been extremely upset. Lady Wilburdon was more than the titular head of his old school; she must have some power over him. And the idea of someone actually having power over the all-powerful Mr. Salvador was certainly interesting.

"What killed Mr. Easyrider is still mysterious," Dr. Radhakrishnan said, "but I have high hopes for Mr. Scatflinger."

"I don't," Zeldo said. It was the first time he had spoken since he had taken to drinking.

"Why not? Everything's going perfectly with him."

"Once we get his chip trained," Dr. Radhakrishnan said, "presumably he will become a bit more versatile."

"We can't train his chip. His chip is dead," Zeldo said.

"If it were really dead, he wouldn't even be able to say wubba wubba."

"It crashed. It's stuck. We ran afoul of that bug I was trying to warn you about."

"So what's it doing?"

"It got caught in an infinite loop."

"An infinite loop?" Dr. Radhakrishnan was flabbergasted. Infinity was a mathematical concept, very easy for a bithead like Zeldo to bandy about, but not something that biologist usually had to deal with.

"Yes."

"Meaning?" Mr. Salvador said.

"Meaning that he will keep saying wubba wubba until he dies," Zeldo said.

"Hmm. That's not going to make much of a favorable impression on Lady Wilburdon," Mr. Salvador said.

"We can send him back," Dr. Radhakrishnan said. "Send him off to the hinterlands. He can found his own religious sect."

16

It was a creepy and surreal morning when they implanted the biochips in the mind of Mohinder Singh. Dr. Radhakrishnan got up early, as he always did on the morning of an operation. He went downstairs, eschewing room service, and watched the sun come up over Delhi from the cafe of the Imperial Hotel. The air pollution was especially bad this morning. Some kind of dire temperature inversion had clamped itself down over the city like a bell jar, trap­ping and concentrating the cocktail of dust, automobile exhaust, coal smoke, woodsmoke, manure smoke, and the ammoniated gasses that rose up from the stewn excreta of millions of people and animals. This being winter, the air was relatively humid, or as humid as it was ever likely to get. The humidity condensed around the countless nuclei provided by all of that air pollution, so that when the sun rose, it had to force its way up through a thick cloacal fog, and turned a furious red color, the color of Elvis's face in his last moments on earth. When it finally burst free of the horizon, the sun simply disappeared and became a mere bright tendency in the burnt-orange sediment of the eastern sky.

Dr. Gangadhar V.R.J.V.V. Radhakrishnan sipped tea and ran over the whole project one more time, wondering if they had overlooked anything.

Mr. Salvador had been spending even more time than usual on the telephone recently. This was totally irrelevant to today's operation, but Dr. Radhakrishnan remained curious about the American side of this project. Old Bucky had to spend a certain amount of time every day at the Barracks. The phone would ring, he would answer it, and he would talk. For hours. And Dr. Radhakrishnan would stroll back and forth through the Barracks, tending to his own work, and occasionally cock an ear in old Bucky's direction, hoping to overhear something.

Most of what he overheard, he already knew; Mr. Salvador was just relaying information about the project to others. But on one occasion, wandering around near Mr. Salvador's desk, Dr. Radhakrishnan heard him involved in a very intense, and very loud, conversation about something called Super Tuesday.

Dr. Radhakrishnan was sure he had seen this phrase somewhere before, but he did not have the foggiest idea what it meant. Some kind of American thing. He kept meaning to ask Zeldo if he knew, but kept forgetting.

After a while, Zeldo came down, murmured a sleepy hello to him, occupied another table nearby, and began to read the Times of India.

Dr. Radhakrishnan had far too much on his mind to concern himself with politics, and rarely looked at the Times. But when Zeldo moved on to one of the interior pages, opening the paper and holding it up in the air, Dr. Radhakrishnan could clearly see a headline, down low on the first page:

U.S. CANDIDATES VIE IN "SUPER TUESDAY" ELECTIONS

"What is Super Tuesday?" he said.

Zeldo spoke to him through the paper. "It's today," he said. "A bunch of the states have their primaries on the same day."

"Primaries?"

"Yeah. You know. To select the presidential candidates."

Dr. Radhakrishnan didn't want to hear anything more about it. He knew it would cloud his mind. He sat there drinking his tea. Then it was time to go to work.

It all went smoothly there in the magnificent central operating theater of the Radhakrishnan Institute. He had never seen the place, except in his dreams, or in the computer simulations, until he walked in to begin the operation. The room was circular, huge, high-ceilinged, a cathedral of technology. The floors were white and mirror-smooth. The walls were white painted concrete. All the light was recessed halogen fixtures, painfully bright, and unnaturally pure in coloration compared to the tainted, smoky-yellow illumination provided by old-fashioned bulbs. It felt just the way it should: as though every technological system on earth converged on this one spot, on the operating table that stood in the middle of the room.

"Jeez," Zeldo said, walking into the place, "all we need is a skylight and some lightning rods."

They did it much better this time around. Everything was calm and quiet. Everyone knew their moves. All the equipment was brand new and worked perfectly.

They lowered the biochip down a shaft into the middle of Mohinder Singh's brain and nestled it into the space that had been cut away. This time it was a perfect fit. The incision had been made under the control of a computer, there were no gaps, the new cells would knit together with the old ones much more quickly.

The closing process took a couple of hours but Dr. Radhakrishnan stayed there through the whole thing, watching his assistants put Mr. Singh's head back together. Zeldo stood off to the side at a Calyx console, monitoring the signals from the chip.

By the time they were sewing Mr. Singh's scalp flap back down over the reassembled skull, lines of data had begun to scroll up the monitor screen. The biochip had already made contact. Zeldo was astonished by this, but Dr. Radhakrishnan wasn't. They had done it right this time.

"What is it?" Mr. Salvador said. He had just come in from the hotel. Clearly, he had been catching up on sleep, sex, drinking, or some other fundamental bodily function, and had been interrupted in the middle by Dr. Radhakrishnan's telephone call. Clearly he was not happy about it.

"Check this out," Dr. Radhakrishnan said, leading him into the room where Mohinder Singh had, for the last few days, been recovering from the operation.

"Is this going to be more wubba wubba?" Mr. Salvador said.

Mohinder Singh was sitting up in bed, as usual, and smoking, as usual. His scar was nearly obscured by the deepening shadow of his hair. He looked up as Dr. Radhakrishnan and Mr. Salvador came into the room, squinting at them impassively through cigarette smoke.

Dr. Radhakrishnan spoke to him briefly in Hindi, gesturing in the direction of an ashtray that rested on a table next to the bed on Mr. Singh's paralyzed left side.

Mr. Singh looked down at the hand and it began to twitch. Then it jumped into the air like a small animal spooked by a sudden noise, and came to a stop out in front of Mr. Singh's face. The hand began to move toward his mouth, a few inches at a time, in a zigzagging course, like a sailboat trying to tack upwind into a moorage. As it got closer the fingers began to vibrate nervously. They wanted to close over the cigarette but they didn't want to get burned.

Then, suddenly, he had gripped the cigarette. He yanked it out of his mouth and extended his arm out over the ashtray in one explosive movement, scattering ashes the whole way. His hand vibrated for a moment above the general vicinity of the ashtray, dumping a few more ashes from the end of the cigarette, some of which actually landed in the ashtray.

Dr. Radhakrishnan spoke another couple of words and Mr. Singh's hand dropped straight down into the ashtray, crushing the cigarette and mostly putting it out. Then he jerked his hand back into his lap, leaving the cigarette in the tray, spinning out a long tenuous line of smoke.

"Astonishing," Mr. Salvador said. He looked quite awake and considerably less grumpy.

Dr. Radhakrishnan spoke another few words. Then he said, to Mr. Salvador, "I have asked him his name."

Mr. Singh's mouth came open and then closed again, the lips coming together: "Mmmmmo-

"Mo," Dr. Radhakrishnan echoed.

"Derrrrrr."

"-der. Mohinder."

"Ssssin."

"Mohinder Singh. Very good." Dr. Radhakrishnan spoke in Hindi again, then translated: "What kind of lorry were you driving at the time of your accident?"

"Ta... ta."

"That's right. A Tata 1210."

"Still no signs of tumor or rejection?"

"None."

"Right," Mr. Salvador said, "that's it, then." He spun on his heel and burst out of the room.

Dr. Radhakrishnan waited for a few moments, then followed him.

The offices were upstairs. He entered the stairwell and heard Mr. Salvador above him, taking the steps two or three at a time.

By the time he had followed Mr. Salvador, quietly, up to the office level, old Bucky had already got through to someone on the telephone:

"What? All right, I'll speak loudly. Can you hear me? Good. Listen carefully; we are go for launch. Yes. Yes. Unequivocally. Yes, you have a good day too."

17

Working out the politics of Mary Catherine's temporary leave of absence from her residency and arranging the trip to the various and far-flung organs of the Radhakrishnan Institute took a few weeks. The trip itself lasted a week and a half. When Mary Catherine flew home from California, Mel drove his sports car, a Mercedes 500 SL, down from Chicago and picked her up at the Champaign-Urbana Airport. He took U.S. 45 from there; it passed within two blocks of the Cozzano house and served almost as a private driveway connecting the family with the outside world. Mel preferred two-lane roads with lots of heavy trucks, because that way he had something to pass.

Mel tried to make small talk as they blasted along between the snowed-over cornfields. Mary Catherine was preoccupied and spent most of the time squinting out the window. Farm machinery threw spouts of black diesel straight up into the sky, visible from miles away. From time to time the tires of the Mercedes rumbled as they drove over a spot where mud and cornstalks had been tracked across the road by a tractor and then frozen down hard to the pavement. South of Pesotum it became possible to see the towers of CBAP heaving up over the linear horizon, kicking out silvery bubbles of steam that dissolved into the clouds.

"Something on your mind?" he asked.

"Just a lot of impressions in a short time," she said, shaking her head. "I want to be coherent when I talk to Dad.

Mel grinned, just a bit. So that was it. Even in his current condition, Dad continued to scare the hell out of Mary Catherine.

"Just give your professional opinion," Mel said. "After that, we're all grownups."

He slowed the Mercedes and turned off the highway. The tires started to buzz as they drove down brick streets. A plywood sign marked the entrance to town:

WELCOME TO TUSCOLA

ATTEND OUR CHURCHES

"It's small in terms of staff. It is absolutely gigantic in terms of resources. Everything they own seems to be brand new," Mary Catherine said.

She was sitting on the sofa in the living room. Dad was sitting directly across the coffee table from her, watching her face. Mel was off to the side. Patricia was hovering, throwing logs on the fire, getting coffee.

"If you buy their basic scientific approach, then these guys are certainly equipped to move forward with it," Mary Catherine continued. "They have money to burn."

"Do you buy it?" Mel said.

"It works on baboons. It makes paralyzed baboons capable of moving, and even walking again. That has been proved, I think, beyond a doubt."

"Does it work on femelhebbers?" Cozzano asked, using his new word for people.

"I asked them that question many times," Mary Catherine said, "and I might as well have been saying 'femelhebbers' for all the information I got."

Cozzano laughed and shook his head ruefully.

"I was skeptical going in. But what they have done is extremely impressive, and it seems to me that if they could produce one healthy person who has gone through their therapy, then we might actually have something."

"Tell me about your detailed impressions," Mel said.

"I saw the institute itself dead last - just this morning. These guys made up the whole itinerary for me, so I didn't have much flexibility."

"Did you feel you were getting the Potemkin Village treat­ment?" Mel asked.

"Yes. But that's normal."

"True," Mel said.

"First place I went was Genomics, in Seattle. It's south of down­town, near the Kingdome, in a big old warehouse that they gutted and redid. All pretty new and clean, as you'd expect. Most of the space is used for things unrelated to this project. They have one suite on the top floor where they do brain work for Radhakrishnan. When I was there they had several cell-culturing projects underway. It's a typical lab with small glass containers all over the place with handwritten labels stuck to them, and by reading the labels I could pick up the names of some of the subjects they're working on. The names I saw were-" Mary Catherine leafed through her notes for a second, "Margaret Thatcher, Earl Strong, Easyrider, Scatflinger and Mohinder Singh."

An uneasy laugh passed around the table. "I know who the first two are..." Mel said.

"That's what I thought. But later, when I went to Elton, I found out that Margaret Thatcher and Earl Strong are two of their baboons. They name all the baboons after political figures."

"Did you also see baboons named Easyrider and Scatflinger?" Mel said. "Those sound more like animal names to me."

"No. And I have no ideas on Mohinder Singh, either."

"Mohinder Singh might be a baboon," Mel concluded, "named after some guy in India that Radhakrishnan doesn't like. But it's also possible that Mohinder Singh is a human being."

"They keep talking about their facilities in India," Mary Catherine said. "It may be a person they are experimenting on out there. Working on, I should say."

"Well, go on," Mel said.

"From Seattle I went to New Mexico for a couple of days. Very nice facility there - the Coover Biotech Pavilion."

Mel and Cozzano exchanged looks.

"Again, they obviously know what they're doing. I spent a long time going over detailed records of all of the baboons they've worked on. It's clear that they have learned a lot about this over the years. Their first subjects had rejection problems, or the biochips failed to take, et cetera. Over time they have solved those problems. Now they can do it almost routinely.

"Then I went to San Francisco and talked to some of the people working on the chips at Pacific Netware. These guys are really good - the best in the business. They were the only ones willing to talk about the human element."

"What do you mean by that?" Mel said.

"All of the biologist types are gun-shy about the idea of doing this with human beings. You can't get them to talk about it. It's clear that there are some potential ethical problems there that they have been trained to avoid. But the chipheads don't have any of those cultural inhibitions. They would probably volunteer to get these things implanted in their own heads."

"Why? Are they brain damaged?"

"No more so than anyone who works on computers for a living. But to them, see, it's not a therapy so much as it is a way of improving the human mind. That's what gets these guys psyched about it."

"You're joking," Cozzano said.

"The biologists won't even allow themselves to think about trying this on people - even several brain-damaged volunteers. The computer people have already gone way beyond that point in their thinking. Half the guys I talked to firmly believed that in ten or twenty years they would be walking around with supercomputers stuck in their heads."

"This is getting weird," Mel said.

"I don't want to wash a duck," Cozzano said. "I just want to bring the trousers."

"Understood," Mary Catherine said, "but I'm here to talk about the credibility of this process. And the point I'm making here is that it is extremely credible as far as the people at Pacific Netware are concerned."

"Okay, we got that point," Mel said. "Tell me about the institute."

"Beautiful piece of real estate on the California coast. Very secluded. Has its own private airport. Lots of open space for recreation."

Once again, Mel Meyer and the Governor were exchanging significant looks. "A guy - even a famous guy - could get in and out of the place without being noticed?"

"Mel, you could fly in, go down the road to this institute, sun yourself in the courtyard, swim on the beach, and no one would ever see you."

"Read me the blueprints," Cozzano said.

"You want some information about the building?" Mary Catherine guessed.

"Yes."

"The building is nice and new, like everything else. Some parts of it aren't even finished yet. There's an incredible operating theater, which looked like it was finished, but there's no way to tell that without actually going in and trying to do brain surgery there. And the actual rooms are luxurious. All private rooms. Big windows with balconies over the ocean. The patients hang out on the balconies, watch TV, listen to CDs, or whatever."

"You actually saw patients there?" Mel said.

"Yes. But because of privacy considerations, I couldn't go to their rooms or talk to them. I saw one or two, from a distance, sitting out on the balconies in their wheelchairs, reading news­papers or just staring into the distance."

"You saw patients there. Which means they have actually done operations on human beings," Mel said.

"I guess that's the conclusion we are led to," Mary Catherine said.

"Well put. Well put," Mel said.

"You think we are being led to a false conclusion?" Mary Catherine said incredulously.

"No way to know, is there?"

"There's a couple of small things," she said, a little uncertain.

"Tell us everything," Mel said. "We'll decide what's small and what isn't."

"I went to the bathroom at one point and washed my hands. And when I turned on the faucet, it sort of coughed."

"Coughed?"

"Yeah. Sputtered for a few seconds. As if there was air trapped in the pipes. It used to happen here, whenever Dad worked on the plumbing."

At first, Mel shook his head, not getting it. Then his eyes widened with astonishment. Then they narrowed in fascination. "You were the first person ever to use the faucet in the ladies' room," Mel said.

"Goddamn it! I think you are wrong," Cozzano said to Mel.

"Since parts of the building were still under construction, it's possible that they had to alter some of the pipes after that sink had been in use for a while," Mary Catherine said, "and that this caused air bubbles to be introduced."

"Please continue," Mel said. He was acting like a lawyer in a courtroom now, interviewing a neutral witness.

"I wandered around the grounds a little bit. It's a nice place for a stroll. And on the bluff, overlooking the sea, a few hundred yards away from the building, behind a little rise, I found the remains of a fire. Someone had piled up a bunch of straw there and burned it."

"Straw?" Mel said.

Cozzano nodded. "It keeps the patio slippery."

"When we used to pour concrete on the farm, we would cover it up with damp straw. You have to keep concrete damp for several days, preferably a week or two, while it cures," Mary Catherine said. "So it's not surprising that they would have a bunch of straw lying around a place where they were building a big reinforced-concrete building. There are a lot of ranches nearby and it's a natural thing for them to use. When I walked back from the site of the fire to the building, I saw a lot of pieces of loose straw caught in the undergrowth, and many of them were stained white with concrete. Some of the straw was still damp."

"So when they were finished, they got rid of the straw by dragging it to this place and burning it," Mel said.

"Yeah. They burned it the night before," Mary Catherine said.

"How do you know that?" Cozzano said.

Mary Catherine held up the little finger on her right hand. The tip was cherry red. "I made the mistake of sticking my finger down into the bed of ashes."

Mel said, "They got rid of the straw right before you got there."

"It was lying around somewhere after they finished the building," Mary Catherine said. "They knew that I was coming and they wanted the place to look tidy, so they burned it."

"What about the goddamn patients? What about other potential contributors? Don't they want the place to look tidy for those people too?" Mel said. "What's so special about you?"

"It was just a coincidence," Cozzano said.

"I think they finished the building the day before you got there," Mel said.

Everyone except Mel burst out in nervous laughter.

"Bullshit," Cozzano said.

"Mel you showed me a photograph of the place two and a half, three weeks ago," Mary Catherine said. She said it kiddingly. She knew what Mel was up to here. It was just like him to state things in the most exaggerated, overstated way possible, just to shake people up.

"There was something funny about that photograph. It was too clean-looking. I think it was fake," Mel said.

Cozzano shook his head and twirled one finger around his ear. There was no point arguing with Mel when he had shifted into full combat mode.

"They have ways of faking that stuff now," Mel insisted.

"And the patients I saw?"

"Actors."

"What are you getting at, Mel?" Mary Catherine said. She said it with one eye on Dad; she was trying to anticipate the kinds of things he would say if he could. "I can't think of any logical explanation for what you are saying."

"I can. Here's how it goes: Coover runs into that guy from Pacific Netware. Kevin Tice. They run into each other golfing or something. And Coover tells Tice about this guy Radhakrishnan and his work with baboons. Coover is a tired old guy with a soft spot, he just thinks of it as a way to help stroke victims. But Tice is a big idea man, he reads too much science fiction, he's not satisfied with just being a billionaire, he wants to have a supercomputer in his head as well. Because if what you are saying is true, then this process of putting chips into people's heads will one day be huge. It's the kind of technology that Tice has to get a jump on right now so he can become the world's first trillionaire a couple of decades down the road.

"So Tice starts pumping money into it for his own purposes. They continue working with baboons, maybe even round up some untouchables in Calcutta or somewhere and do it to them so they can learn how to do it on humans. And then, all of a sudden, Governor Cozzano has a stroke. And Tice and Coover see a big opportunity. By fixing the brain of someone who is powerful and famous they can jumpstart this new industry of theirs. So they go out and build this thing in California. I'll bet it 'was already under construction and they just hurried up the process a little bit. Just got it done yesterday in time to impress Dr. Mary Catherine Cozzano here. But she was a little too observant."

"Bullshit," Cozzano said.

"If what you say is true," Mary Catherine said, "then the worst conclusion we can come to is that they really want Dad as a client, and they've pushed their schedule up in order to make a good impression on him."

Mel thought that one over for a while. Cozzano, obviously amused, watched Mel's face. "I don't like the idea of them using Willy as a guinea pig," Mel said.

"Phooey," Cozzano said. "Better a dead pioneer than a live feeb."

"You want to pursue this?" Mary Catherine said.

"Yes, goddamn it," Cozzano said.

Mel just closed his eyes and shook his head in disbelief.

"There is a step we can take now, without committing ourselves," Mary Catherine said. "I don't know whether I like this. But I have to give you all the information. As you said, Mel, we're all adults."

"What is it?" Mel said warily.

"Dad has to go up to Champaign, to Burke Hospital, tomorrow for a routine checkup. While he's in there, we could arrange for a biopsy."

"Of what?"

"Brain cells."

"Why?"

"We could send them to Genomics. They could hang on to them there. That way, if Dad made the decision to go ahead with an implant, they could culture the cells and prepare the biochip at any time."

"Do it," Cozzano said.

"Oh shit," Mel said.

"Do the biopsy?" Mary Catherine said. "Tomorrow?"

Cozzano just looked her in the eye and nodded. His eyes looked a little brighter. He smiled at Mary Catherine with the good side of his mouth, and a thin trickle of drool steamed down out of the other side.

"I'm tired of this," Cozzano said, wiping off the drool with his good hand. "This is bad."

"Yes, it's bad," Mel said, "but-

"I want to be the Milhous," Cozzano said.

"And one day you will be," Mel said, "but-"

"Shut up, goddamnit!" Cozzano bellowed. Suddenly he riped the blanket off his lap with his good hand. Then he pitched forward in his wheelchair so violently that he seemed to be falling out.

Everyone jumped up and converged on him. But he wasn't falling. He was trying to stand up. The momentum of his upper body carried him halfway to his feet and he used the powerful thrust of his good arm to push him up on one leg. Then he almost tottered over, but Mary Catherine had already danced around the coffee table and now she drove her shoulder up under her father's armpit, taking most of his weight.

Though no one but Mary Catherine would ever know it, this had taken a lot of guts on her part, because her impulse had been to shrink away. Suddenly back on his feet, Dad was massive, dark, and towering. Mary Catherine's love for her father had always been mingled with a judicious amount of fear, or maybe respect was a nicer word for it. He had never struck her or even threatened to, but he never needed to. The tornadic force of his personality made people cringe and scurry, especially when he was mad, and right now he was really pissed. He threw his entire weight on her body for a moment, nearly buckling her knees, and finally got his weight centered over his good leg again.

And then he started to hop. He was going somewhere. He had fixed a dark, unblinking gaze on the far wall of the den, and seeing this, Mary Catherine tried to help him along. They moved together one hop at a time across the shag carpet and into the den. Mel shuffled along behind them.

Cozzano was headed for a framed picture hung on the wall. It was a picture of Cozzano shaking George Bush's hand on the south lawn a few year ago. Barbara Bush stood off to the side, hands clasped together, beaming supportively. Behind them rose the columns of the White House.

Cozzano went straight across the floor and fell, crushing Mary Catherine into the wall with his bad shoulder and pinning her there. He reached across his body with his good hand and slammed the end of his index finger into the framed picture so hard that it whacked back into the wall and a couple of cracks appeared in the glass.

He wasn't pointing to himself or to the Bushes. He was pointing to the White House.

"This is mine," he said. "This is my barn." He slammed his index finger into the White House a couple of more times for emphasis. "I should have done it before."

"You have to get better first," Mary Catherine said in a strangled voice.

"Well, I guess I better print up a shitload of bumper stickers," Mel said morosely. "Femelhebbers for Cozzano."

Mary Catherine didn't say anything. She was feeling the hairs stand up on the back of her neck.

Her dad was running for president. Her dad was running for president. President of the United States. It was enough to make her forget about the stroke, to obliterate the fact that there was no way he could be elected in his condition.

She wanted to talk to her mother. She wished Mom was here. This would be a good time to have a mother.

But Mom wasn't here. She forced herself to open her eyes and stare at him.

He was looking right back at her with the frightening, soul-penetrating glare that made people want to leave the room.

Then it went away and was replaced by an idiotic grin. Mary Catherine had seen this grin a million times while examining neurology patients, and she had seen it on Dad's face a few times since the stroke, usually when it seemed like he was giving up. It was the drooling, clownlike, sheepish grin of a near vegetable. It was a lot more frightening than his intense glare.

"You are the quarterback now, peanut," he said. His eyes rolled back into his head and he went completely limp, as if his bones had turned to water. Mary Catherine let him down to the floor as gently as she could; Mel stepped in to support his head.

"He's just had another stroke," Mary Catherine said. "Forget about the phone, Tuscola doesn't have 911. Let's get him into that fast little car of yours. And then you need to drive it like a bat out of hell."

18

The South Platte River looked big and important on maps of Denver. It approached the city from the north-northeast. Its valley and flood plain were several miles wide and served as a corridor for a bundle of major transportation routes: state highways, an interstate, natural gas pipelines, major railways, and high-tension power lines. The first time Eleanor had seen it was shortly after she and Harmon had arrived in Denver and they were driving around looking for places to live. Harmon drove and Eleanor navigated, and she got them lost. She got them lost because she was trying to use the mighty South Platte as a landmark, and instead they kept crossing back and forth over a paltry creek or drainage ditch out in the middle of nowhere. Not until she actually saw the name of the thing on a sign by a bridge could she believe that this dried-up rill was all there was to it.

They had crossed the Platte again a couple of years ago on their way to the Commerce Vista Motel and Mobile Home Haven. In retrospect, Eleanor knew that Harmon had craftily plotted their trajectory so that they could reach the place without having to pass through any part of Commerce City proper. They'd come in from the northwest, from the middle-class suburbs where they had raised their family, past brand-new strip malls sitting totally empty with weathered FOR LEASE banners stretched across their fronts, across open grassland that was too close to the flood plain or too far from the highway to develop. At the edge of Commerce City they had passed quickly through a brief unpleasant flurry of franchise development and then come upon the Commerce Vista. Somehow Eleanor had failed to notice the WEEKLY RATES sign on the motel's marquee, and she hadn't even bothered to look across the highway, off to the eastern edge of the mobile home park. She hadn't looked that way because it was nothing but empty grassland stretching vastly under a white sky, and Eleanor didn't like to look east across that territory because it told her exactly how far she was from home. But if she had looked she would have seen that it was surrounded by tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, with signs every few yards reading U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS - NO TRESPASSING. Tangles of plumbing stuck mysteriously out of the ground from place to place, and every few hundred yards was a white wooden box with a peaked roof, like an oversized birdhouse, containing instruments to monitor the air.

Prairie grass was the only thing that would grow in the yellow rock flour that passed for soil at the Commerce Vista. But the vegetation was all gone and so now it was just a hardpan mixed with broken glass so that it sparkled when the sun hit it right. There were no particular roads or streets, only the tracks left by the last vehicle. The only thing that kept it all from blowing away was the tamping action of car and truck tires, and the little waist-high fences that partitioned the land into tiny lots and gave each trailer a yard to call its own.

On their first visit to the place, Eleanor had noticed that the neighbor's gate had a little decoration on it. One of Doreen's kids had put it up. It was a jack-o-lantern: a circle of orange con­struction paper with three black triangles in it, one for each eye and one at the bottom that was apparently supposed to be the mouth. It hadn't struck her as odd that they had Halloween decorations up in June. Not until they'd moved in did Doreen explain that the symbol was, in fact, a copy of the radiation symbols that their kids saw across the highway at the arsenal.

She remembered all of these things one night as she reclined in the front seat of her old Datsun, trying to get some sleep. Eleanor tried not to think of the old Datsun as a car. She tried to think of it as a highly compact mobile home. She called it the Annex.

She could still remember walking down the street in D.C. with her mother when she was a kid and encountering dirty men who slept in parked cars. She could remember how frightened she was of those men and of the way they lived. She didn't want to be like that.

It was not really such a big deal, when you thought about it logically. She was living in a mobile-home park, for god's sake. What was a mobile home but a big boxy car without an engine? Her old beat-up Datsun, parked on four flat tires in front of the mobile home, was like a little annex, a mother-in-law apartment.

The seats did not exactly recline all the way, but they reclined quite a bit. The only hard part was trying to find a comfortable place to lay her head, because it tended to roll back and forth on the hard surface of the headrest as she relaxed. After a couple of hard nights she finally worked out an arrangement of pillows that held her head in place comfortably. That and a sleeping bag and she was all set. She knew that she might be sleeping this way for a while, so she safety-pinned clean sheets into the inside of the sleeping bag and took them out every week and laundered them.

The car's battery was run down but it still had enough juice to run the radio, so it could be said that the Annex had a home entertainment system. Sometimes Eleanor would sit there and listen to a little music, or to news of the presidential candidates. Looking out the windshield, she could see into her neighbor Doreen's trailer and see the candidates running around on Doreen's TV set on top of the fridge. When she watched TV in this way, from a great distance, through layers of dirty glass, unable to hear the sound, it had a weird, pixilated look to it. There were so many politicians going so many places, doing so many cute things to get the attention of the cameras. It was like a nursery school, she thought, full of lonely kids who were always punching each other, running with sharp objects, and sticking pencils up their noses - anything to draw attention to themselves. The TV producers, like overburdened nursery-school teachers, cut frantically from one three-second shot to another, trying to keep track of them, and all their little activities. Each cut made the image on Doreen's TV set jump, startling Eleanor a bit and making her eyes jerk involuntarily toward the screen.

So that was why kids couldn't stop watching television.

The candidates did not seem to have much of an attention span. As the weeks went on, most of them ran into trouble of one kind or another - a poor showing in a state primary, a scandal, or money woes - and dropped out. It always seemed momentous at the time of the actual announcement, and when Eleanor saw a candidate standing somberly in front of some blue curtains, she would turn on the Annex's radio and listen for news of his withdrawal. But a few days later she would realize that she could hardly even remember the candidate's name or what he stood for. And it got to the point that whenever one of the candidates made his little withdrawal speech, she would say, "Good riddance," and snap off the radio.

Eleanor Richmond was sleeping in her car because there was no room left in the mobile home. It only had two bedrooms. Until recently, she and Harmon had slept in one and their children Clarice and Harmon Jr., had slept in the other.

Now everything was discombobulated. Harmon had killed himself. Harmon, Jr., had taken to staying out late. Clarice had remained stable and reliable, a good girl, for a few weeks following the suicide, and then one night she had not come home at all.

And then Eleanor's mother had moved back in with them. Eleanor spent about half of one night trying to sleep in the same bed with her mother before going out into the living room, where she found Harmon, Jr., sacked out on the couch. From there she had gone straight to the car.

Eleanor loved her mother, but her mother had died a long time ago. Only the body lived on. The Alzheimer's had started when she was in the first retirement community. The nice one. The expensive one. By the time they were forced to move her into the not-so-nice one, she had deteriorated to the point where she had no idea what was going on, which was a blessing for all concerned.

Now she was home with Eleanor. She was back in diapers. Mother didn't mind, but Eleanor certainly did - and the children couldn't handle it at all. Eleanor hadn't seen much of her children since Mother had moved in.

With other kids, that would have been worrisome. But Eleanor's kids weren't like that. She had raised them the way Mother had raised her. They had their heads on straight. Even when Clarice stayed out all night, Eleanor felt confident that she was using her head and not doing any of that stupid underclass behaviour.

Harmon Jr., was a case in point. He had been horrified that first morning when he found his mother sleeping in a car. He had tried to insist that he be the one to sleep outside. Eleanor had put her foot down. She was still a parent; Harmon, Jr., was still her child. It was the parent's duty to look out for her children. No son of hers was going to sleep outside, not while she could help it. Harmon, Jr., eventually backed down. But the next day he came home with some sheets of silvery plastic stuff that he had brought at an auto parts store. He went out to the Datsun and stuck this material up on the insides of all the windows, turning them into one-way mirrors. From inside the car, it just tinted the windows a little bit. But from, the outside, no one could see in.

Eleanor really liked it. She liked to come out here and snuggle into her sleeping bag, lock the doors, and He for a while, gazing out the windows. Usually when you went to bed, you were blind. If you heard a mysterious noise outside the window or in the house, you felt scared and helpless. You had to get out of bed and turn on all the lights to find out what was happening. Here in her silvered bubble she could see everything, but no one could see her. If she heard a noise, all she had to do was open her eyes, and she could see that it was a cat scratching in the dirt, or Doreen coming back from her evening shift at the 7-Eleven. And if it was anything more than that, she had Harmon's old officer's .45 sitting in the glove compartment right in front of her, practically in her lap. Eleanor had spent a few years in the Army herself and she knew how to use it. She knew exactly how to use it.

When money got short and times got hard, you stopped worrying about all the superficial nonsense of modern life and you got down to basics. The basic thing that a parent did was to protect her family. That is why Eleanor Richmond felt more comfortable, and slept much more soundly, in her silverized glass bubble with a loaded gun six inches away. Whatever else was going wrong, she knew that if anyone tried to get into her house and hurt her family, she would kill them. She had that one base covered. Everything else was details.

Her eyes came open in the middle of the night and she knew that something was wrong without even turning her head.

The Commerce Vista ran right up to the edge of the highway, and it didn't have any of this exit-ramp nonsense. One minute you were going sixty miles an hour and the next minute you were skidding across yellow dust and broken glass, trying to kill speed. Whenever someone performed this maneuver, Eleanor heard it and opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was always the white aluminium front of the mobile home. If the car then turned on to her particular lane, its headlights would sweep across the surface.

It had just happened a few seconds ago. And now she heard footsteps crunching in the gravel, right outside of the car.

She lifted her head slowly and quietly. A man was walking in front of her car. A beefy, bearded white man, young-looking but with the bulk of middle age, dressed in jeans and a dark windbreaker, wearing a baseball cap. He moved confidently, as if he belonged in her front yard, as if he belonged on her front step.

Which he definitely did not.

Eleanor had practiced this; she had been ready for it since the first night in the Annex. As the man was mounting the steps to their front door, his back turned to her, she rolled out the front door of the car, dropping to her knees, pulling the gun out of the glove compartment, and took cover behind the corner of the mobile home, sighting down the side of the house, drawing a bead on the center of the man's windbreaker. From here he looked exactly like a silhouette target at the firing range.

He hadn't heard her yet. She raised her head for a second and looked at his car. It was a beat-up old sedan with no one else in it. The man had come alone. His mistake.

"Freeze! I'm covering you with a .45," she said. "I'm an Army veteran and I have fired hundreds of rounds into targets that were a lot smaller and farther away than you are."

"Okay," the man said. "Can you see my hands? I'm holding them up."

"I see 'em. Why don't you lace them together on top of your head and then turn around to face me."

"Okay, I'll do that," the man said. He did.

"What are you doing here?" Eleanor said.

"My job."

"You a robber?"

"No. I'm a cop. Detective Larsen of the Commerce City Police Department."

"Can you prove that?"

"I can prove it by showing you my ID," Detective Larsen said. "But in order to do that, ma'am, I'll have to take it out of my pocket, and it would be a shame if you misinterpreted that as reaching for a gun. So let's talk about this for just a second and see if we can negotiate a way for me to extract the ID from my pocket without giving you the wrong idea."

"Don't worry about it," Eleanor said, pointing the gun up at the sky and coming out from behind her cover. "Only a cop would talk like that."

"Well, let me show you my ID anyway," Larsen said. He turned sideways so that she could see his butt. He slowly reached around into his back pocket and took out a black wallet. He underhanded it twenty feet to Eleanor, then left his hands well away from his sides while she opened it up and looked at it.

"Okay," she said, tossing it back. "Sorry if I spooked you."

"Normally I'd be real pissed," he admitted. "But under the circumstances, ma'am, it's all right. You Eleanor Richmond?"

Larsen's face went all fuzzy and out of focus. Eleanor's eyes were filling up with tears. She didn't even know why, yet. "I got the feeling something real bad happened," she said.

"You're right. But it's going to be okay, considering."

"What happened?"

"You son is in the hospital in serious but stable condition. He's going to be all right."

"Car crash?"

"No, ma'am. He was shot."

"Shot!?"

"Yes, ma'am. Shot in the back by a suspected gang member, in downtown Denver. But he's going to be okay. He was very lucky."

Suddenly Eleanor was seeing clearly again. The tears had gone away. It was so shocking that just for a minute, curiosity over­whelmed everything else.

This was terrible. She should have been freaking out and panicking. Instead, she felt eerily calm and alert, like a person who had just been sucked out of an airliner into a cold, scintillating blue sky. Her life was completely falling apart now. She felt the complete abandon of a person in free fall.

"My son was shot and you're saying he's lucky?"

"Yes, I am, Mrs. Richmond. I've seen a lot of people shot. I ought to know."

"Detective Larsen, is my son in a gang and I don't even know about it?"

"Not as far as we can tell."

"Then why did they shoot him?"

"He was using a pay telephone downtown. And they wanted to use it."

"They shot him over a pay phone?"

"As far as we can tell."

"What, my son wouldn't let them use it?"

"Well, no one uses a pay phone forever. But he didn't give it up as quickly as they wanted him to. They didn't want to wait. So they shot him."

She frowned. "Well, what kind of a person would do something like that?"

Detective Larsen shrugged. "There's a lot of people like that nowadays."

"Well, why are our presidential candidates running around having sex with bimbos and sticking pencils up their noses when we have people growing up in Denver, Colorado with no values?" Detective Larsen was looking progressively more bewildered.

"Presidential politics aren't my speciality, ma'am." "Well, maybe they ought to be."

A few weeks later, Eleanor found herself sitting on a rather nice, brand-new wrought-iron bench in front of the Boulevard Mall in downtown Denver. She was in no mood to be at a mall, but circumstances put her here a couple of times a day.

Her son was convalescing, and taking his sweet time about it, at Denver County Hospital, which was a mile or so down south of the state capitol and the high-rise district. This part of town included the hospital, various schools, and museums - all of the municipal stuff. It also included the old downtown shopping district, which had been badly in need of some really devastating urban renewal for quite some time.

Just recently the urban renewal had come in the form of the Boulevard Mall, a brand-new pseudoadobe structure built on the bulldozed graves of more traditional retail outlets. It was near Speer Boulevard, only a few blocks from the hospital. A lot of bus lines converged there. Denver had hired some publicity genius who had come up with a catch phrase for the bus system: The Ride. This being the automotive West, where only tramps and criminals were thought to take public transit, the buses were slow, few, and far between, and so Eleanor had been spending a lot of time taking The Ride lately, or waiting for it, which was even more humiliating.

She consoled herself with the fact that it made sound financial sense. Sitting down with her calculator, like the banker she had once been, and weighing all the alternatives, she eventually figured out that the most logical way for her to spend her time was to take The Ride downtown twice a week, to this neighborhood. Along with all of its municipal buildings, it included a few big old mainline churches, several of which had gotten together and started up a food bank. Originally it was just to help Mexicans live through the Rocky Mountain winter, but in recent years it had started to attract a more diverse clientele. So while Eleanor was out of the house picking up cheese, powdered milk, oatmeal, and beans, Doreen was keeping an eye on Mother. In return, Eleanor gave Doreen some of the food and watched Doreen's kids for a couple of hours a day. This was known, among intellectuals, as the barter economy.

Since the shooting, she had added an additional stop: she would go out and visit Harmon, Jr., at Denver County Hospital. Harmon had learned, from his father, to hold his feelings inside and not complain about things, so sometimes it was hard to tell how he really felt. But he seemed to be doing okay psychologically, much better than Eleanor would have been if she had been shot in the back for no reason. As Harmon, Jr., came out from under the shock and the effects of the drugs, he got his old spark back, plus a little bit of a macho swagger that had not been there before. He had been shot and he had survived. That was one way to get a name for yourself in high school. The macho bit was cute, as long as he didn't take it too far.

Thinking of her son made Eleanor smile to herself as she sat on the bench in front of the Boulevard Mall. Across her lap was a large brick of orange cheese encased in a flimsy cardboard box, and several pounds of rolled oats and pinto beans in clear plastic bags. Above her head was a large sign in red metal saying THE RIDE.

All around her, people were strolling in from the parking lots, converging on the front entrance of the mall. These people had their very own rides, many with licence plates from outlying counties. She got more than one dirty look from these people. This was not unusual in Denver, which now had its ghettos at the outskirts of town, but even for Denver it seemed like she was getting a lot of dirty looks. Then she realized that every other one of these people was wearing a T-shirt or a baseball cap emblazoned with the slogan EARL STRONG COMES ON STRONG.

Everybody knew that Earl Strong's real name was Erwin Dudley Strang, but no one seemed to care, and that was just one of the many things about the man that pissed Eleanor Richmond off.

Not that there was anything wrong with changing your name.

But political candidates had been crucified in the press for doing far less significant things. Earl Strong/Erwin Dudley Strang seemed to get away with murder.

He could have picked something a little less obvious than Strong. To change your name, and then use the name's double meaning as part of a campaign slogan ... it was a little much. As if he were nothing more than a new TV series. But even though people knew exactly what Erwin Dudley Strang was doing, they lapped it up like thirsty dogs.

Maybe one reason Eleanor felt bad when she heard of the man was that she had known of him from way back and she had never taken him seriously.

The first time she had ever seen the name Erwin Dudley Strang, it had been printed across the laminated face of a photo ID card. She had seen it through the distorting lens of the peephole on the front door of the house in Eldorado Highlands. She was on the inside of the house, by herself, waiting for the cable TV installer to show up; the cable company had promised that an installer would arrive between nine and five, and so she had spent the whole day waiting in an empty house. He had finally rung her doorbell at 4.54 p.m. and stood out on the front doorstep holding up his official cable TV installer's ID card so that it was the only thing she could see through the peephole when she looked out.

She could at least pride herself on one thing: she had known, just from that one little gesture, that Erwin Dudley Strang was a creep.

She opened her front door. Erwin Dudley Strang lowered the badge to reveal a narrow, concave face, cratered like the surface of the moon. He looked Eleanor Richmond in the eye, and his jaw dropped open. He stared at her without saying anything for several seconds. It was the look that white people gave to black people to let the black people know that they didn't belong there. To remind them, just in case they'd somehow forgotten, that they were on the wrong continent.

"Can I help you?" Eleanor said.

"Is the lady of the house in?" he said.

"I am the owner. I am the lady of the house," she said.

Keeping that fixed stare on her face, Erwin Dudley Strang blinked a couple of times and shook his head melodramatically. But he never said anything. It almost wouldn't have been so bad if he had said, "Shit, I never thought I'd see a black person out here." But he didn't do that. He shook his head and blinked, and then he said, "Yes, hello, I'm here to install your cable TV."

In the course of installing the cable system he had to go in and out of the house half a dozen times. Each time, he was careful to stare her down while standing in the corner of her peripheral vision so that she would know that he was there. Each time, she felt herself getting hot under the collar and turned squarely toward him, and each time he glanced away just a moment before her eye met his, blinked, shook his head, and continued about his work.

He walked around the house brandishing a power drill with a preposterously elongated bit, which he used to drill holes all the way through the exterior walls wherever she told him she wanted a cable TV wire. Even the way that he handled this tool raised Eleanor's hackles; it seemed clear, somehow, that a large portion of Erwin Dudley Strang's ego was bound up in this tool, and that penetrating the walls of total strangers' homes was the really swell part of the job as far as he was concerned.

And consequently he always pushed on the drill a little bit too hard, tried to make it happen a little bit too fast, and ended up shoving the drill bit through the wall with brute force rather than waiting for it to cut cleanly; everywhere he poked a hole through the wall he managed to burst a sizable hole through the drywall, and every time he did it, he came back in and shook his head in astonishment as if this were the first time it had ever happened. As if defective drywall had been used to build the Richmonds' new house, the Richmonds had been foolish enough not to notice, and there was not a thing he could do about it.

He ran the cables along the outside of the house, not by stapling them but by tucking them between the pieces of vinyl siding. As a result they all fell out within the first couple of days, leaving gaps in the siding where it no longer interlocked properly. Harmon ended up spending an entire weekend fixing the holes in the drywall and reattaching the cable to the house and getting the siding popped back together. Harmon also noticed that Strang had neglected to ground the cable system properly, which put the whole family at risk of electrocution, and so he rigged up a way to ground it to a cold-water pipe down in the basement.

All of this was in defiance of Erwin Dudley Strang's statement, which he repeated to Eleanor several times, that the stuff was cable company property and they were not allowed to mess with it in any way.

"It's all hooked up," he said, at some point when he had arbitrarily decided that he was finished. "Now, if you'll show me your TV, I'll hook it up for you."

The Richmonds had not moved into the house yet. There was not a stick of furniture in the house, or for that matter in the whole development. Erwin Dudley Strang had passed through every room in the place and must have noticed this. Now he was asking to see their television set, staring at her blankly, with the forced innocent expression of a sixth-grade bad boy who has just nailed the teacher with a spitball.

She was just completely baffled by the man. Clearly, what he was saying had no relationship to what he was thinking. He was playing some kind of game. She had no idea what it was.

"It's not here. We haven't moved in yet," she finally said. Mother had taught her, when in doubt, to be polite.

"Well, then I can't show you how to hook it up."

"It's cable-ready," she said. "All we have to do is screw the cable in the back and turn it on."

"And plug it into the power outlet," he corrected her, just a hint of a smirk on his face.

"Yes, and plug it in. Good point," she said.

"Now, is it ready for all bands of cable? Because the bands here might be different from the bands there."

She had been expecting something like this. Telling Erwin Dudley Strang that their set was cable-ready was tantamount to making fun of his drill bit. He could not let it go unpunished. He would have to one-up her and display his technical mastery.

"From the bands where?" she asked.

His eyes darted back and forth. Clearly this was something of a curve ball. "Wherever y'all came from," he said, putting a long, drawling emphasis on the "y'all."

"If you don't know where we came from, how do you know that the bands are different?"

"Well, you came from back East, didn't you? From one of them big cities?"

"No. We were at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center for a couple of years. Before that we lived in Germany."

"Oooh, Germany," he said. Then, moving so suddenly that he made Eleanor startle, he stood up straight, clicked the heels of his work boots together, and jutted his right arm out in a Nazi salute. "Sieg Heil!" he hollered. He dropped his arm and a smile spread across his face as he watched Eleanor's reaction. "Lots of those kinds of people there? You know, National Socialists?"

"You mean Nazis?"

"Well, that's kind of a slang term, but yeah, that's what I mean."

"Never saw one there," Eleanor said. "If you're finished, you can leave now."

Strang raised his eyebrows fastidiously. "Well, technically speaking, I'm not finished with the installation until I have hooked up the TV set and gotten it running to the satisfaction of the owner."

"My husband is an engineer. He'll get it running. If we're not satisfied, we'll call the cable company."

"But before I leave, I have to get your signature on this docu­ment," Strang said, holding up an aluminium clipboard, "which states that the installation is complete and you are satisfied with the quality of service."

"I'll sign anything, at this point."

"You sure?" Strang said, wiggling the clipboard just out of Eleanor's reach.

"Positive."

"We could test it right now if you could get a TV set."

"For the eight hundredth time, I do not have a TV."

"I'll bet you could get one, though."

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

Strang looked out the windows of the living room, down the block. "Must be some other houses around here that have TVs. I'll bet you could figure out a way to get your hands on someone else's TV set, if you really wanted it."

She just stared at him, narrowed her eyes, shook her head in amazement.

He continued, "Course now that y'all are out here in the nice part of town, I'll bet you don't do that kind of thing no more. But I'll bet you still got the skills. Y'all are just a little rusty."

"I'm gong to call the cable TV company and they are going to fire your ass," she said.

"They can't," he said. "I don't work for them. I'm an inde­pendent contractor. Just a small-time entrepreneurial businessman struggling to make my way."

"Then I'll make sure they never hire you again."

"Your word against mine," he said, "and even if they believe you, there's plenty of other cable systems out here in Colorful Colorado that keep my services in high demand."

She knew it was crazy for her to be arguing this with him. She should just throw him out of the house. But her parents had raised her to talk things out. They had worked their fingers to the bone paying for an expensive Catholic education so that the nuns could teach her to be a rational, intelligent citizen. She could not get over the impulse to make Erwin Dudley Strang see reason. "Why shouldn't they believe me?" she said. "Why would I bother to call in such a complaint? It's not something I would do for fun."

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," he said.

"What!?"

"I seen the way you been looking at me," he said. "If you want a taste, why don't you just ask for it?"

"Oh, Jesus," she said, "get out of my house. Get out now. Just get out."

"Upstairs bedroom has some nice carpet in it. Almost as good as a bed."

Then she astonished herself by kicking him in the nuts. Hard. A direct hit. His mouth formed into an O shape, his eyes got big, he stuck his arms down between his thighs, sank to the living room floor, and lay down on his side, sucking in quick, short breaths through his puckered lips.

She went right out to her car, rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and started the engine.

After a few minutes, Strang came out, walking in little tiny baby step, climbed gingerly into his van, and after sitting there in the front seat for a few ominous minutes, backed out of the driveway and went away.

Later they found out that he had forged Eleanor's signature on the work order form. She didn't care.

The next time Eleanor saw Erwin Dudley Strang, he was on television, his name was Earl Strong, and his complexion was frighteningly, unnaturally smooth, as if he had been lovingly spackled, buffed, and polished. The white skin of his cheeks was luminous under the lights of the television studio, and almost fuzzy, like an off-focus beauty shot of an aging movie star. As if the camera could not find any feature or blemish to focus on.

She saw his face on the local public-access cable TV channel one night when she was flipping through the channels after Harmon and the children had gone to bed. It went without saying that the cable had never worked perfectly ever since Strang installed it. It was always a little snowy, with a bit of fuzz in the audio, and whenever the wind blew, the picture started to jump. But putting up with bad television was preferable to phoning the cable TV company and having them send him back to fix it.

It was creepy and ironic to be flipping through the channels, cursing the bad reception, cursing the man who had installed it, and suddenly to have him show up on screen, in a full talking head shot, wearing a business suit.

She looked at him for a moment and flipped on to the next channel. She didn't want to see the man. So he was wearing a business suit. He had found some other profession to give a bad name to. She didn't care.

But a few nights later she saw him again, and this time the letters EARL STRONG were superimposed on the bottom of the screen, and finally she had to stop right there and watch.

It was some kind of talk show. Not a slick network production by any means. Just a sheet-metal desk in front of a big piece of blue paper with a Goodwill sofa next to it where the guests sat.

But Earl Strong/Erwin Dudley Strang wasn't sitting on the sofa. He was sitting behind the desk, in a cheap folding sheet-metal chair that creaked whenever he shifted his weight. He was the host.

Eleanor had to go and dig up the little channel guide, the little slip of cardboard that Strang had given her years ago, to find out what channel she was watching. It said CH. 29 - PUBLIC ACCESS CABLEVISION.

Earl Strong was talking politics with an assortment of off-brand philosophers who drifted across his little stage, seemingly following their own cues. The camera angle never varied. Clearly there was only one camera taping this thing, and it was sitting on a tripod, running on autopilot. It was comically inept, just the kind of thing that he would throw together.

The title of tonight's broadcast was "The Three-Fifths Compromise: Error or Inspiration?" Eleanor could only listen to about thirty seconds of it before she was overcome by an odd combination of boredom and fury.

The name of the show was Coming on Strong. Earl Strong kept coming on, week after week, year after year. It seemed that every time she happened to flip past his little program, he looked a little different: he did something about those crooked teeth. Got his chin lengthened. Fixed the nose. Bought a narrower and more conser­vative set of neckties. Played endlessly with his hairstyle until he found one - close-cropped but carefully sculpted - that worked. Bought himself a chair that did not creak. Moved to a better studio, got a two-camera setup, then a three-camera setup. Got com­mercial sponsorship from Ty (Buckaroo) Steele, a prominent local purveyor of cut-rate used cars, and made the jump from public-access cable to one of the local commercial stations.

And at each step of the process, Eleanor laughed and shook her head, remembering him curled up on the floor in her living room, sucking in short little breaths, and she wondered how long it would take for this man to be found out for the shabby little fraud he really was. Each time he attained a little more success, Eleanor was shocked for a moment, even a little frightened. Then she calmed herself down by reminding herself that the higher he got, the harder he would fall in the end.

Surely someone would take it upon themselves to expose this man.

But no one ever did.

And then, all of a sudden, Earl Strong was running for the United States Senate, he was ahead in the polls, and everyone loved him.

19

A white limousine pulled into the parking lot of the mall, swung past the line of waiting buses, and came to a stop in front of the main entrance. This limousine was far from elegant; it was a rolling billboard for Ty (Buckaroo) Steele's Pre-Owned and Remanufactured Vehicles Inc. The only time it ever came out of the garage was during parades, when Buckaroo himself would drive it down the street with some local beauty queen popping out of the sunroof to wave at the crowd and pelt the young 'uns with hard candy.

But Buckaroo had now found another way to use it. The doors opened up and several men in dark suits climbed out and walked, in a cluster, toward the entrance of the mall. In the middle of the group she could clearly make out the pre-owned and remanu­factured face of Earl Strong, who in these parts was invariably described as "the next Senator from Colorado."

A few moments after he went into the mall, a big cheer rose up from inside. They were holding some kind of campaign event inside there.

She shook her head, staring at a huge COMES ON STRONG poster stuck to the side of a bus directly in front of her.

Her bus wasn't due to leave for half an hour. There was really no reason for her to sit outside on this bench when she could go into the mall and kill time. It was just that she felt so trashy, walking through the nice mall in her clothes, rumpled from having been slept in, and her rumpled hair, carrying big hunks of generic bulk food that she had gotten for free.

Right next to her was a big pseudoadobe litter basket, nearly

overflowing, and resting on the top layer, neatly folded and put away, was a thick glossy shopping bag from Nordstrom.

Eleanor pulled the bag out and unfolded it. It was clean and new.

She put her cheese and oatmeal inside the Nordstrom bag, got up, and walked toward the entrance of the shopping mall. She wanted to see what Erwin Dudley Strang was up to.

As she was approaching the entrance, she saw her reflection in the glass doors. She had thought it was a clever trick, hiding her welfare cheese in the Nordstrom bag, but when she saw herself, she recognized something about her silhouette, a shape she'd seen in many cities, on many park benches, and a realization came to her.

She had become a bag lady.

It was a spear through her heart. She lost her stride and stumbled to a complete halt. Tears flooded her eyes uncontrollably and her nose began to run. She sniffed, blinked, swallowed, and fought it back.

The Earl Strong supporters were veering around her, turning back to look at her face. She couldn't just stand there. She picked up her pace and punched through the glass doors and in so doing, transformed herself from a bag lady into a shopper.

In the central part of the mall, Earl Strong was standing up on a raised podium, coming on strong.

"Thank you all for coming today. I wanted to do this in January, but the mall wouldn't let me have the space because they said it was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And I said that I certainly wouldn't want to have my name associated with a man who plagiarized his dissertation and shacked up with women he wasn't married to."

Nervous but exultant laughter ran through the crowd: a lot of heavy middle-aged white men raising their eyebrows at each other to see if they dared laugh at Martin Luther King. They did.

"Then I wanted to do it in February, but they said it was President's Day. And I said that I liked the sound of that, but that I was only running for the Senate, and the presidency would have to wait for a few more years."

That line brought a round of applause and a slowly gathering chant of "Run! Run! Run" from the crowd. Earl Strong, obviously pleased, let the chant build for a few seconds, long enough to be picked up by the TV cameras, then made a big show of quieting it down by waving his hands over the crowd.

"That left March or April. But in April, we've got Easter, when Christ rose from the dead, and that one is a little out of my scope. So I settled on March. March is a plain and simple month, raw and honest, not tricked up with any fancy holidays, and I decided that suited my style best. And another thing about the month of March: it comes on strong!"

That cued an outburst of cheering and chanting that went on for several minutes.

Below, Eleanor wandered through the crowd with her shopping bag, watching the Strong supporters cheering and jumping up and down and pumping their fists in the air. She was totally invisible. They had eyes only for Strong. The few who did notice her got the same shocked look that Erwin Dudley Strang had gotten years ago when he had first seen a black woman standing in the doorway of a suburban house. Then they looked away. Guiltily.

People were so easy to understand, when you were a mom. Eleanor could see their guilt a mile away, see them trying to delude themselves, like kids who believed that they could make unpleasant things go away just by wishing.

The only thing they needed, she realized, was a good talking-to. Which was one thing that Earl Strong could never give them.

Eventually the cheering died away and Earl Strong stopped shaking his clasped hands over his head and returned to the podium, shot his cuffs, adjusted his collar just a bit. Eleanor had wandered rather close to him, was now looking up at him from just a few feet away. His face was thickly plastered with television makeup. In his perfect, stiff suit and his injection-molded haircut and his heavy pancake, he looked like a cardboard cutout.

"Now you might ask why I went to so much trouble, and waited so long, for the opportunity to speak here at the Boulevard Mall. After all, there are better places to hold a campaign event. But this mall has something that none of those places can provide. As I stand here in the crossroads of this beautiful mall I can look in all directions and see economic prosperity at work."

Applause.

"I don't see people standing in line for a handout. I don't see people going to court and suing other people for what they think the world owes them. I don't see people breaking into other people's homes and stealing things. I see people working hard in honest businesses, small businesses, and to me that is what makes America the greatest nation on earth."

Applause.

"And I have particular respect for the small businessmen, and women - let's not forget the women's libbers!-" laughter "-who built these businesses, because for a number of years, I was a small businessman myself, owning and operating my own enterprise as an independent contractor."

Eleanor could not restrain herself; standing now at the base of the podium, she spoke up. "Excuse me! Excuse me?"

Earl Strong looked down at her with a fixed, glazed smile. He noticed that she was black. Once again, he got that look on his face.

But he was older and, if not wiser, then smarter. He didn't let it throw him off. She could see the wheels turning beneath his artificial face. She could see him having an inspiration, making a quick command decision.

"I don't usually take questions from the audience at this point in the speech," he said, "but some people have been saying that I only appeal to one kind of person, and I'm glad to see that a racially diverse group is here today, and I see that one of them has a comment she wants to make, and I'm very interested in hearing what she has to say. Ma'am?"

Television sound men brandished their boom microphones like fishermen on a dock waving grotesque, furry lures, competing for the attention of the only fish in the pond.

"You were saying that you were a businessman," she said, and suddenly her voice was very loud through the amplifiers, and she realized that she didn't have to shout anymore.

"That I was," Strong said. But his voice didn't come through; Eleanor had the microphones.

"You were a cable TV installer," she said, in a normal tone of voice. She sounded good. Everyone had always said she had a good telephone voice.

"Yes, ma'am, that I was," Strong said, shouting toward the microphones now, his voice high and strained.

"Well, a cable TV installer isn't so much a businessman as he is a burglar with pretensions."

Most of the crowd gasped. But a lot of them actually laughed. Not the deep forced belly laughter with which they had responded to Earl Strong's canned jokes. It was nervous tittering, choked off in the middle, just this side of hysteria.

Earl Strong was cool. He was good. The smile on his face barely wavered. He was silent and calculating for a few moments, waiting for the laugher to die away, searching her up and down with his eyes.

"Well," he said, "I must say that's quite a disrespectful attitude for a woman who's carrying a big piece of cheese in her bag that was paid for by my tax dollars."

A smattering of belly laughs, and sparse applause. Most of the people were silent, nervously realizing that Earl Strong was verging on dangerous territory. And in the near vicinity of Eleanor, there was violent convection in the crowd. Die-hard Earl Strong supports were stepping away from her as if she was going to give them AIDS, and minicam crews and news photographers were converging on her as if she were going to make them famous.

"Well," Eleanor said, "I would say that even showing yourself in public is pretty cheeky when you are nothing more than a pencil-neck Hitler wannabe with a face from Wal-Mart."

This time, there was utter silence, except for a few sharp intakes of breath.

Earl Strong had gone bright red under his pancake makeup.

"Besides," she added, "this cheese didn't come from your tax dollars. It was bought by churchgoers who give money to support a public food bank. Have you ever been to church, Mr. Strong?

Before you started running for something, that is."

"I am a conservative Christian," he said. "I have no qualms about saying so."

"You have no qualms about saying anything that'll get you elected."

Another nervous titter from the crowd. But father away, around the fringes, a cheer went up; passing shoppers had gathered, attracted by the noise and now they were cheering her on.

"I saw you show up just now in that tacky limousine. Most of the people who ride around in that thing are used-car salesmen or silicone beauty queens. Which one are you?" she said.

"I resent the implication that there's something wrong with the used-car trade."

"It's not exactly a character reference for you, Erwin Dudley Strang or whatever your name is."

"My name is Earl Strong. And it's an honest business like any other."

"Oooh, Erwin Dudley Strang is giving me a lecture about how to be honest," Eleanor said. "I know you think all black people are dishonest. Well, the only dishonest thing I've ever done is tell myself I had a chance to make it in a white society."

"There we have it," Strong said, addressing the crowd again. "The defeatist attitude that is bringing our economy down and brainwashing many minority people into thinking that they have to have affirmative action programs in order to succeed. This is a classic example of the attitude problem that prevents black people from succeeding, even where no real impediments exist."

"I don't have a car," Eleanor said. "That's a real impediment. I don't have a job. My husband's dead. How many more impedi­ments do I need?"

"None whatsoever," Strong said. "That's plenty. Why don't you just shut up now."

"I won't shut up because I'm hurting you on television, and you don't have the brains or the balls to stop me."

A big whooo! went up from the shoppers.

Strong laughed. "Lady, I represent a political ground swell in this country that is more powerful than you can imagine. And there is nothing you can do, on or off television, to hurt me. All you do is annoy me."

"I know that's what you think. Ever since you took that belt sander to your face you think you're the second coming of Ronald Reagan. You think you're made of teflon. Well, it takes more than a simple mind and synthetic smile to be Ronald Reagan. You also have to be likable. And you aren't any more likable than you were when you showed up at my door at 4:54 p.m. and installed my cable like some kind of a trained monkey."

"Oh, so that's it," he said. "This is some kind of vendetta." Strong looked up at the crowd, turning his face up into the light again. "This woman is upset because she gets static on her daytime soap operas."

"No," Eleanor said, turning around to face the crowd, "I'm upset because my son just got shot in the back for using a pay phone. And Earl Strong, this juvenile delinquent with a fifty-dollar haircut, is standing up tall and pretty telling me it's all because I don't have values. Well, I may be sleeping in a car and eating government surplus cheese but at least I haven't sunk low enough to become a politician who feeds happy lies to starving children."

"I am exactly the opposite of the kind of politician you think I am," Earl Strong said, "I am a man of the people. A populist."

"A populist? To you, a populist is someone who's popular ... to you, a homecoming queen is a populist. To me, a populist is someone who serves the needs of the populace. And the only thing you've ever done for the populace is show up late, drill holes in their houses, and hand them a big fat bill. Which is exactly what I predict you'll do for us in the Senate."

A high, enthusiastic screeching arose from the predominantly female shoppers gathered around the edge, whose numbers had now swelled to exceed the Strong supporters. They rattled their shopping bags, waved their fists in the air, and stomped the floor with their stylish pumps.

20

There were lots of empty offices on the upper floors of Cy Ogle's old Cadillac dealership. When the PIPER project got underway, Aaron requested some place for the West Coast head­quarters of Green Biophysical Associates. Ogle just shrugged and told him to go upstairs and stake a claim. Aaron picked out an office on the third floor. As far as he could tell, he was the only other person in the whole building, which was kind of surprising in an election year.

But he was hardly the first. The building had the eroded, overused character of a subway station, with depressions worn into the thresholds and steps. Every time Aaron stepped through a doorway, through the sole of his tennis shoe he felt a gentle concavity in the floor, burnished down through several stacked layers of linoleum that left concentric ovals that looked like lines on a topographic map.

The offices were furnished with old steel desks and chairs done up in the colorless hues and unconvincing wood grain reserved for office furniture, but the walls were virtually papered with brightly colored bumper stickers and posters. Giant multiline telephone cables hung from rude holes in the plaster. Ogle was just in the process of computerizing his whole operation, buying big high-powered Calyx workstations from Pacific Netware, and those unsightly holes in the plaster made installation a snap. The vendor would haul the boxes into an office, uncrate the computers, and feed cables into the holes. They would emerge from ragged holes in other offices and plug into other workstations.

Aaron could only identify about 10 percent of the candidates hyped on the bumper stickers and posters that covered the walls, ceilings, doors, and even toilets. Most of them seemed to be for senatorial and gubernatorial races in states he wasn't familiar with. Many seemed to be from other countries. There were a few in Cyrillic and other alphabets that Aaron couldn't even recognize, much less read.

Aaron's life in the PIPER project was hectic but comfortable. He had discarded all pretense of being a serious businessman and gone back to basic R&D, and he was surprised to find how much happier he was. This was his natural way of life. He would meet with the Pacific Netware people, either here in Oakland or in Marin County, and identify a set of problems to work on. He would fly to Boston and solve those problems with his partners, then fly back here and repeat the cycle. He left his nice suit in Boston on his first trip and then returned to Oakland on the red-eye, checking a duffel bag stuffed with T-shirts and flannel shirts. He slept on the floor of the new office in Oakland, ate pizza, and was happy.

On many occasions he ran into people in the empty hallways or the empty stairwells, carrying sheafs of paper or videotapes from one bleak, empty office to another. So far he had not seen anyone twice. He did not know anyone well enough to say hello to them. A lot of people worked for Ogle, it seemed, but they didn't stay in one place for very long. So he was a little startled one evening when Ogle abruptly stuck his head into the doorway and said, "You want to see a hell of a thing?"

"What is it?" Aaron said.

"The first female president of the United States," Ogle said.

"I didn't realize they had held an election."

"Mark my words. I will lay money on it," Ogle said. "C'mon."

Aaron got up and followed Ogle down the stairs. He needed to stretch his legs anyway.

Ogle had a video editing studio set up on the first floor, back behind the "Oval Office" and all the other sets. Half a dozen small but good color monitors were mounted on racks, each hooked up to a different videotape machine, and all the machines were hooked up to each other, and to a Calyx workstation, with an incomprehensible web of thick black cables.

Two men and a woman were in the room, draped over the furniture in poses that suggested they had been there for quite a while. Aaron had seen a couple of them, here and there, around the building from time to time.

Ogle was a goofball. He was loose enough to seem positively loopy to most people. He spent a lot of time staring off into space with his rosebud mouth twisted in kind of an incredulous, sneering grin. But he was also a southerner and could suddenly turn on full charm-school etiquette when it was the appropriate thing to do. So as he led Aaron into the room, he pirouetted and held one hand out to gesture at these three people and properly introduce them.

"This is Aaron Green of Green Biophysical systems, our head genius on PIPER," he said. "Aaron, I would like you to meet Tricia Gordon, who is the most talented time buyer on earth; she did the buying on the big Coke campaign last year."

Aaron did not have the slightest idea what Ogle was talking about. He smiled at Tricia Gordon, she held out her hand, he shook it. She was wearing a relatively formal blue knit dress, largish abstract jewelry, and had red hair that was done up in a fairly ambitious style. She was confident and pleasant.

"And this is Shane Schram, a clinical psychologist from Duke by way of Harvard. He does our FGIs, and can he ever dig down beneath the surface on an FGI!"

Aaron still had no idea what was happening. He shook the hand of Shane Schram, who did not stand up or say anything, just dropped the chopsticks he was using to eat with and held his hand up in the air for Aaron to shake. He was broad-shouldered, prematurely bald, rumpled, and smart.

Ogle was still laughing at Shane Schram. "When our FGI people come out of the room, they feel like they've been on the rack. Shane is the Savonarola of focus groups."

"I see, that's great," Aaron mumbled.

"And this is my old pal Myron Morris, who once said that the single most important political development of the last quarter century was the zoom lens. Myron's a filmmaker, in case you hadn't guessed. He did those cinema verité flood-damage spots for Representative Dixon down in Texas."

Aaron shook the hand of Myron Morris, who was a wide-faced, jolly but cynical type in his early fifties, wearing bits and pieces of a fairly nice suit.

"I just caught his off CNN," Ogle said, waggling a thick, three-quarter-inch video cassette in the air, "and I thought y'all might like to see it."

"Was this on Prime News?" Tricia Gordon said.

"It was indeed," Ogle said, shoving the cassette into a big professional videotape recorder. The VTR clunked loudly, like a big truck shifting into gear, and an image materialized on the screen above it.

The anchorman was introducing a segment; over his shoulder was a small head shot of Earl Strong, the scary populist who had been making waves in Colorado. Aaron couldn't hear much, because the sound was turned down. They cut to a shot of a shopping mall with the words DENVER, COLORADO supered across the bottom.

Everyone except Aaron laughed.

"Original choice of venue," Myron Morris said, apparently being facetious.

Reverse angle: as seen from near the entrance to the mall, a white limousine pulled up, festooned with flags and slogans, and a number of people climbed out, including Earl Strong.

"Jesus, what a putz," Myron Morris said. "It's deserted. What a waste."

Ogle must have noticed that Aaron looked confused. "They probably have a million supporters inside the mall, but none positioned outside to greet him. So he looks like a nobody," Ogle explained.

"They should have pulled a bus or something up as a backdrop. Something. Anything," Morris said.

"See, the parking lot behind is full of glare," Ogle explained. "Reflections of windshields and so on. But the entrance to the mall is in shade. So we can't see the guy's face at all-

"Now watch! He's just going to disappear here," Morris said.

On the TV, Earl Strong crossed into the shadow of the mall and became a featureless silhouette. The camera zoomed in on his face, trying to compensate for the high contrast between the glare out in the parking lot and the dim light on Strong's face, but it looked terrible either way.

"He tried," Ogle said.

"Who tried?" Aaron said.

"The cameraman," Morris snapped.

On the TV, Earl Strong approached the doors of the mall and then there was another cut. Aaron still couldn't hear anything, but it sounded like a reporter was delivering a voiceover during all of this.

"Master race in skimmers," Morris said.

As if on cue, the screen was filled with a couple of big fat middle-aged white ladies in COME ON STRONG T-shirts and EARL STRONG skimmers, clapping their hands to the beat of a campaign song.

"Good rhythm for Aryans," Shane Schram said.

"UFOs Ate My Brain," Tricia Gordon said.

"Now we'll go to some stumpage," Morris said.

Again, perfectly on cue, Earl Strong appeared on screen, delivering some prepared remarks.

"Have you seen this footage before?" Aaron asked Morris.

"Get out of here," Morris said.

"Nice lighting, huh?" Tricia Gordon said.

"I love it," Morris said.

Earl Strong was standing on a platform. The camera shooting this footage was down below him, aimed upward so that, as backdrop, Earl Strong had mostly the ceiling of the mall. But part of the ceiling consisted of skylights, and where it didn't have skylights, it had brilliant mercury-vapor lamps. The skylights made great patches of glare and the lamps made long wavy streaks across Earl Strong's face.

"Jesus. Television cameras should be outlawed in the Sun Belt," Morris said. "Film only. How many times do I have to say it?"

Everyone in the room was laughing at Morris. But Morris had eyes only for the TV set. "Whoa! Whoa! Hold up here! We have some real-life campaign drama!"

Everyone was suddenly totally silent, crowding in closer to the screen.

The camera was now aimed at a black woman who was apparently standing down below Earl Strong. She was slender, with high cheekbones, and at first glance she looked as if she might be in her late twenties. But on second thought, early forties was more like it. For a woman in her early forties she was a knockout. Not in an overtly sexy way. She had a nice face, with big eyes. She was wearing an overcoat that was too big, but its bulk contrasted well with her relatively sharp and slender build, and its navy-blue color suited her skin tones. Her backdrop was a wall of Earl Strong supporters wearing colorful T-shirts, all of whom were hastily backing away from her; she stood in the center of an arena of fat, vivid Aryans, all facing inward, emphasizing her importance. As she spoke, she inclined her face up into the even, omnidirectional light streaming down from above; the same light that cast Earl Strong into shadow served as perfect illumination for her.

"The choreography blows my mind," Ogle said.

"I love her," Tricia Gordon said. "And she lights well."

"She's telling the truth," Schram said. "Whatever she's saying, I believe her."

"The drama of this thing is unreal," Myron Morris said. "One woman standing alone, all these trailer-park Nazis shrinking away like rats."

Cut back to Earl Strong, now looking straight down at her so that his face was completely obscured by a sinister shadow.

Myron Morris suddenly went nuts! He fell out of his chair, dropping to his knees below the television set, and clasped his hands together as if in prayer.

"Zoom in! Zoom in! Zoom in and his career is over!" he screamed.

The camera began to zoom. Earl Strong's face grew to fill the screen, grew into a devastating extreme closeup.

"Yes! Yes! Yesss!" Morris was screaming. "Slit the bastard's throat!"

Once the backlighting had been removed by zooming in tight, the camera's electronics were able to pick up every nuance of Earl Strong's face in clinical detail. A storm front of perspiration had burst through the powder and pancake on his forehead; individual drops of it began to run down. One of them made a beeline for the corner of his eye and that eye began to blink spastically. Earl Strong's mouth was half open and his tongue had come forward, sticking half out of his mouth as he tried to think of what to do next. A huge Caucasian blur burst up through the bottom of the frame: his hand, brushing the sweat away from his stricken eyeball, stopping on the way down to shove one thumb into a nostril and pick out something that had been troubling him there.

Morris suddenly jumped to his feet and thrust an accusing finger directly into Earl Strong's face on the screen. "Yes! You are dead! You are dead! You are dead! You are dead and buried, you inbred booger picking little shit! We gotta find the cameraman who did that and give him a medal."

"And a decent job," Ogle said.

Back to the black woman, still standing there. Her face was alert, her jaw set, her eyes burning, but she remained solid and still, a perfect subject for the camera. The camera zoomed in a little closer but still found no imperfections. There were a few wrinkles around the eyes. It just made her look even wiser than she already did, standing next to Earl Strong.

"Ronald Reagan eat your fucking heart out," Shane Schram said.

"There's something about her face, too," Ogle said.

"She's been through some heavy shit, you can tell. An American Pietá," Tricia Gordon said.

"Let's go down there and represent her," Shane Schram said.

"What's she running for?" Morris said.

"Nothing. She's a bag lady," Ogle said.

A look of ecstatic fulfillment came over Morris's face.

"No!" he said.

"Yes," Ogle said.

"It can't be. It's too perfect," Morris said. "It is just too fucking ideal."

"She's a bag lady, and according to our polls, she knocked twenty-five points off of Earl Strong's standings today."

Morris threw up his hands. "I quit," he said. "There's no need for me. Real life is too good."

"We have to run her for something," Tricia Gordon said, staring fixedly at the TV screen.

"Excuse me," Aaron said, "but aren't you all forgetting something?"

"What's that?" Ogle said. They were all staring at him, suddenly quiet.

"We haven't heard a word the woman's said," Aaron said. "I mean, she could be a raving lunatic."

They all burst into dismissive scoffing noises. "Screw that," Shane Schram said. "Look at her face. She's solid."

"Fuck that shit," Morris said. "That's what writers are for."

21

Mary Catherine was expecting a car, not a limousine, so she didn't know that the shiny black behemoth was hers until the driver got out, walked around, and opened the door for her. By that time, the sight of the limousine was already drawing a crowd; not many of these showed up in this particular neighborhood of Chicago.

Her lunch date had told her that he would send a car around to pick her up at the hospital. Instead, he had dispatched a limousine. Which didn't make a lot of difference to Mary Catherine. Both of them were just vehicles to her, just ways of getting around town. She had been around enough not to be bowled over by the gesture. It was just another exercise in being William Cozzano's daughter and trying to keep things in perspective.

The limousine had a TV and a little bar inside of it. The driver offered to give her a hand mixing a drink. She laughed and shook her head no. She was going to have to come back from this lunch and keep working.

She knew that there was a certain kind of person - a certain kind of man, to be specific - for whom the back of this limousine was like a natural habitat, who felt as comfortable sitting on those leather seats and drinking Chivas in the middle of the day as Mary Catherine felt behind the wheel of her beat-up old car. During the time that Dad had been Governor, she had run into a lot of those people, gotten to know their peculiar rhythms and their particular view of life. They had always seemed completely alien to her, like cosmonauts or Eskimos.

Then Dad had proclaimed her the quarterback. As if her regular job wasn't enough responsibility. Now, she had to dash out of the neurology war, filled with gunshot-paralyzed drug dealers and demented AIDS patients, and dash down the stairs and jump into the back of a limousine where the decisions were all different: what kind of drink to mix, what channel to view on the TV.

She had club soda and watched CNN, which was what the TV set was already showing when she climbed in. The timing was fortuitous: it was high noon, the beginning of a fresh news broadcast. The Illinois primary was tomorrow. The elections were still very much up in the air, not much else was happening in the world, and so the campaign was being covered pretty heavily.

The out-of-power party had their front-runner (Norman Fowler, Jr.), their runner-up (Nimrod T. ["Tip"] McLane), and their plucky underdog (the Reverend Doctor Billy Joe Sweigel). And just to make things interesting, they also had a popular favourite: Governor William A. Cozzano, who wasn't even running. But wildcat Cozzano petition drives were popping up all over the place and so the media had to treat him as a serious candidate.

All three of the legitimate candidates got roughly the same sort of coverage: shots of the great man flying or driving into a prefabricated campaign event, a rally at a high school or whatever. They shook hands, they smiled, and they all did something just a little bit wacky, hoping that it would gain them just a little more recognition among TV viewers.

Mary Catherine was tired and stressed and she quickly zoned out, found herself watching all of this stuff without really processing it. She had slumped way down in the soft leather seat of the limo, displaying posture that would have driven her late mother to hysterics, and was gazing through heavy lids at the colorful images on the screen, letting them pass directly into her brain without hindrance. Which was exactly the way you were supposed to watch TV.

As if on cue, there was her father.

CNN was showing her a wall of glass windows. The camera was aimed upward at the outside of a building. Ceiling light could be seen in a few rooms, and many of the windows were festooned with mylar balloons, flowers, and children's artwork. Mary Catherine saw an IV bottle hanging from a rack and realized that she was looking at a hospital. The camera zoomed in on a particular window with lots of expensive flower arrangements. A man in a wheelchair was dimly visible peeking out between the bouquets.

Then it all snapped into place. This was Burke Hospital in Champaign, and they were zooming in on her father's private room. The TV crew must have gone to the roof of the parking ramp directly across the street, five stories high, and aimed the camera up and across to his window.

Dad was nothing more than a silhouette. The windows were all metallic and reflective; you could only see into them when it was dark outside. But sometimes when the sky was profoundly overcast in the middle of the day, it was possible to look in those windows and see dim shapes underneath the silvery reflections. And that was what some enterprising cameraman had captured on videotape: Dad, sitting in a wheelchair, looking out his window.

The image was gray and indistinct and so you couldn't tell that Dad was, in fact, strapped into the wheelchair to keep him from slumping over. He had been turned squarely toward the window and so you couldn't see the support that rose up behind his head to keep it from flopping around. He was lit from behind so you couldn't see the drool coming out of his mouth and the moronic expression on his paralyzed face.

A couple of standing silhouettes were visible behind him: a nurse and a slender young man. James. James pushed the wheelchair closer to the window so that Dad could see out. Then he left Dad alone there and disappeared from the frame. The camera panned 180 degrees.

The parking ramp covered about half a square block. Parking was not hard to find in the area, so few cars ever made it all the way up to the rooftop level. Right now, half a dozen vehicles were scattered around. Most of the remainder of the roof was covered with people. Hundreds of them. They were carrying signs and banners. They were all looking straight up in the air. Straight up toward Dad. And now that he had appeared in the window, they were all rising to their feet, reaching into the air, shoving their signs and banners up into space as if Dad could reach down and pluck them out of their hands. But it was a strangely silent demonstration.

Of course it was - they were in front of a hospital. They had to be quiet.

The camera zoomed in on a long, crudely fashioned banner, like the ones that fans hold up at football games: WE LOVE YOU WILLY! Others could be seen in the background: FIRST AND TEN FOR Cozzano! GET WELL SOON - THEN GET ELECTED!

There were a couple of shots of other hospital patients, in their flannel jammies and their walkers, looking out windows and pointing. Then back to the shot of Dad's silhouette, just visible from the chest up, in front of his window.

He waved out the window.

Which wasn't possible. Most of his body was paralyzed after the second stroke. But he was doing it. He was waving vigorously to the crowd.

Something looked funny: his hand and arm weren't big enough.

It was James. He must be down on his knees next to Dad, concealed behind the windowsill, holding up his hand and waving for him.

Cut back to the crowd, waving their banners hysterically, going nuts.

Cut back to the window. James was till waving, pretending to be Dad. Then his hand stopped waving and became a fist. Two fingers extended from the fist in a V sign.

Mary Catherine shot upright and spilled her club soda on the limousine's wool carpet. "You bastard," she said.

Back to the crowd. Finally they lost it, forgot they were in front of a hospital, started screaming and cheering. Hospital security cops jumped forward, waving their arms, telling them to keep it down. And then they cut back to network headquarters, where all of this was being watched by their afternoon anchorman. Pete Ledger. Former pro football player, turned sportscaster, turned newscaster.

A well-respected, middle-aged black guy with a sharp, fast tongue who'd probably end up having his own talk show one of these days.

His eyes were red. He reached up with one hand just for an instant and wiped his runny nose with the back of one finger, sniffled audibly, took a big deep breath, forced himself to smile into the camera, and announced, in a cracking voice, that they were going to break for a commercial.

"My God," Mary Catherine said out loud to no one. "We're in deep shit."

She flinched as the door of the limousine came open, letting in bright unfiltered light. The car had stopped.

She'd lost track, but something about the light told her they were near downtown, hemmed in by skyscrapers. They were in a crowded little side street, just south and west of the Board of Trade, stopped in front of a brownstone with a first-floor restaurant. An awning extended from the front door, across the sidewalk, to a loading zone along the curb. An uniformed doorman had opened the door for her.

He reached in with one hand and helped her out, which was a nice, if superfluous, gesture. He was an older guy, a kindly white-haired doorman type, and as he was helping her out on to the sidewalk, he gave her hand an extra squeeze, nodded at her, looking at her in a way that was almost worshipful.

There was another man, a guy in a plain old dark suit, standing under the awning waiting for her. Dad had once told her that you could gauge the quality of a restaurant according to how many people you spoke to before you actually got around to ordering food. She wasn't even into the door of this place yet and she had already encountered two people.

"Howdy, Miz Cozzano," the man said, "I'm Cy Ogle."

"Oh, hello," she said, shaking his hand. "Did you just get here?"

"Nah, I nailed down a table for us," he said. "But I figured that since I dug you out of work like this on such an ugly day, least I could do was come out and say hi."

"Well, that's very nice," she said noncommitally.

So far, he didn't seem like the cynical, media-manipulating son of a bitch that he was supposed to be. But it was way, way too early to be jumping to conclusions.

Another guy in a suit, who clearly did work here, nearly killed himself bursting out the front door of the place, and met her halfway up the sidewalk, holding out one hand, bending his knees as he approached so that by the time he reached Mary Catherine he was practically duck-walking. Mary Catherine could see in his whole face and affect that he was Italian.

He was crying, for god's sake. He pumped her hand and grabbed her upper arm with his left, as if only all the willpower in his body prevented him from violently embracing her. He said nothing but merely shook his head. He was so overcome with emotion that he couldn't speak.

"We were just watching CNN over the bar," Ogle explained. "It was incredible."

Some kind of a huge commotion was going on inside the place. It got louder as Mary Catherine moved toward the door, led by the crying Italian and followed by Ogle, and as she crossed the threshold, it exploded.

The back of the restaurant was all quiet little tables, but the front of the place was a sizable bar, currently packed with bodies. They were all men in suits. This was an expensive place where people in the commodities business, and the lawyers and bankers who fed off them, gathered to fortify themselves with martinis and five-dollar mineral water.

And right now they were all on their feet, howling, applauding, stamping their feet, whistling, as if the Bears had just run back an interception for a touchdown. They were going nuts.

And they were all looking at Mary Catherine.

She came to a dead stop, shocked and intimidated by the noise. Ogle nearly rear-ended her. He put one hand lightly on top of her shoulder and bent toward her. "Pretend they don't exist," Ogle said, not shouting but projecting a deep actor's voice that cut through the noise. "You're the Queen of England and they're drunks in the gutter."

Mary Catherine stopped looking at them. She stopped making eye contact with any of them. She focused on the back of the rnaître d', who was plunging through the crowd of pinstripes, making an avenue for her, and she followed him straight through the thick of it and into the restaurant proper. The people at the bar were chanting now: Cozzano! Cozzano! Cozzano!

Half of the people dining in the restaurant area stood up as she came through. Nearly all of them applauded. The maître d' led them straight to a table at the very back of the place, behind a partition. At last, they had privacy. Just Mary Catherine and Ogle.

"I'm really, really sorry about that," Ogle said, after they had been seated, menued, watered, and breadsticked by a swirl of efficient, white-aproned young Italian men. "I should have arranged to bring you in the rear entrance."

"It's okay," she said.

"Well, I'm embarrassed," Ogle said. "This is my business, you see. It was unprofessional on my part. But they had CNN going above the bar, and I didn't reckon on that footage being shown just before you got here."

"Powerful stuff," she said.

"It was unbelievable," Ogle said. He stared off into space. His face went slack and his eyes went out of focus. He sat motionless for a few seconds, moving his lips ever so slightly, gradually beginning to shake his head from side to side, playing the whole thing back on the videotape recorder of his mind.

Finally he blinked, came awake, and looked at her. "The kicker was Pete Ledger getting choked up. I never thought I'd see that in a million years."

"Me neither," she said. "He's usually too smart for that kind of thing."

"Well," Ogle said, "this is some powerful stuff that's going on right now."

That led them into small talk about the primary campaign, the misguided petition drives that were trying to put her father's name on the ballots in several states, and eventually into a discussion of Dad's stroke and its aftermath. Mary Catherine kept the whole thing quite vague, and Ogle seemed content with that; whenever the conversation wandered close to Dad's medical condition, or his political prospects, his face reddened slightly and he grew visibly uncomfortable, as if these topics were way beyond the bounds of southern gentility and he didn't know how to handle it.

She had only rarely gotten a chance to watch Dad doing business. But she knew that this was how Dad operated: lots of small talk. It was an Italian thing. It meshed pretty well with Ogle's low-key southern approach.

In fact, Ogle seemed to have no desire to talk business at all, as if the near riot at the bar had embarrassed him so deeply that he couldn't bring himself to return to that subject. So, after an opportune pause in the conversation, Mary Catherine decided to open fire. "You manage political campaigns for a living. My dad's not running for anything and neither am I. Why are you buying me lunch?"

Ogle folded his hands in his lap, broke eye contact, and glanced around at the food on the table for a few moments, as if this were the first time he'd ever thought about it. "There's a bunch of people in my business. Most of the important ones are busy running primary campaigns, for various candidates, right now. But not me. So far I have not committed my resources to any one candidate."

"Is that a deliberate strategy?"

"Sort of," Ogle said, shrugging. "Sometimes it pays not to commit too early. You may end up backing some loser. In the process, you antagonize the guy who ends up being the nominee, and then you can't get any work during the general election, which is where the big money gets spent."

"So you're holding back until you find out who's likely to get nominated. Then you try to get them as a client."

Ogle frowned and stared at the ceiling as if something was not quite right. "Well, there's more to it. I have been doing this for a number of years now. And frankly, I'm getting tired of it."

"You're getting tired of your business?"

"Certain aspects of it, yeah."

"Which aspects?"

"Dealing with campaigns."

"I don't understand," Mary Catherine said. "I thought you were the campaign."

"I would like to be the campaign. Instead, I'm the media consultant to the campaign."

"Oh."

"The campaign proper consists of the party's national committee and all of its hierarchy; the individual candidate's campaign manager and all of his hierarchy; and all of the pressure groups to which they are beholden, and their hierarchies."

"Sounds like a mess."

"It's a hell of a mess. If I can just make an analogy to your business, Ms. Cozzano, running a campaign is like doing a heart-lung transplant on the body politic. It is a massively difficult and complicated process that requires great precision. It cannot be done by a committee, much less by a committee of committees, most of whom hate and fear each other. The political nonsense that I have to go through in order to produce a single thirty-second advertising spot makes the succession of the average Byzantine emperor seem simple and elegant by comparison."

"I find that kind of surprising," Mary Catherine said. "People have known about the value of media since the Kennedy-Nixon debate."

"Long before that," Ogle said. "Teddy Roosevelt staged the charge up San Juan Hill so it would look good for the newsreel cameras."

"Really?"

"Absolutely. And FDR manipulated the media like crazy. He was even better at it than Reagan. So media's been important for a long time."

"Well, you'd think that the major political parties would have figured out how to deal with it more efficiently by now."

Ogle shrugged. "Dukakis riding in the tank."

Mary Catherine grinned, remembering the ludicrous image from 1988.

"The Democratic candidates in the '92 debate, sitting in those little desks like game show contestants while Brokaw strode around on his feet, like a hero."

"Yeah, that was pretty silly looking."

"The fact is," Ogle said, "the major parties haven't learned how to handle media yet. And they never will."

"Why not?"

"Because of their constitution. The parties were formed in the days when media didn't matter, and formed wrong. Now they are like big old dinosaurs after the comet struck, thrashing around weakly on the ground. Big and powerful but pathetic and doomed at the same time."

"You think the parties are doomed?"

"Sure they are," Ogle said. "Look at Ross Perot. If Bush's psy-ops people hadn't figured out how to push his buttons and make him act loony, he'd be president now. Your father has everything going for him that Perot did - but none of the negatives."

"You really think so?"

"After the reception you got when you came through that door," Cy Ogle said, nodding toward the entrance, "I'm surprised you would even ask me such a question. Heck, you dad's already on the ballot in Washington state."

She was appalled. "Are you joking?"

"Not at all. That's just about the easiest state to do it in. Only takes a few thousand people."

Mary Catherine didn't answer, just sat there silently, staring across the restaurant. She had been watching this political business for a while, but she still couldn't believe that a few thousand total strangers in Seattle had taken it upon themselves to put her father on the ballot.

"This is kind of interesting, as an abstract discussion," Mary Catherine said. "I mean, I'm enjoying it and I guess I'm learning something. But how it relates to my dad isn't clear to me."

"You're going to be hearing from a certain major political party," Ogle said. "Medical situation permitting, they're going to try to draft your father at the convention."

"And if that happens, you want me to use whatever influence I've got to get them to hire you?"

Ogle shook his head. "They won't hire me. They don't work that way. They always form their own in-house agency so that the political hacks, with all their little ambitions and intrigues, can exert more control over the ad people, whom they see as unprincipled vermin."

"So beyond having interesting conversations, what use are you to me? And what use am I to you?"

Once again, Ogle broke eye contact, put his silverware down, stared off into the distance, thinking.

"Let me just state one ground rule first," he said. "This conver­sation is not a business thing."

"It's not?"

"Nope. But it's not a social thing either, because we are total strangers."

"So what is it, Mr. Ogle?"

"Two people talking to each other."

"And what exactly are we talking about?"

"Surfing."

"Surfing?"

"Media is like a wave," Ogle said. "It's powerful and uncon­trollable. If you're good, you can surf on it for a little bit, get a boost from it. Gary Hart surfed on that wave for a few weeks in 1984, after he won New Hampshire from Mondale. But by the time the Illinois primary came around, he had fallen off the surfboard. The wave broke over him and swamped him. He tried again in 1988 but that time he just plain drowned. Perot rode the wave for a month or two in '92, then he lost his nerve."

Ogle turned in his chair and focused in on Mary Catherine now. "You and your family, you've been having a day at the beach. You've been out wading in the shallow waters where everything is warm and safe. But the currents are tricky and suddenly you find that you have been swept far out into the deep black water by a mysterious undertow. And now, great waves are cresting over your heads. You can get up and ride those waves wherever they take you, or you can pretend it's not happening. You can keep treading water, in which case the tsunami will break on top of you and slam you down on to the bottom."

Mary Catherine just kept her mouth shut and stared into her water glass. She was feeling several powerful emotions at once and she knew that if she opened her mouth she'd probably regret it.

There was fear. Fear because she knew that Ogle was exactly right. Resentment because this total stranger was presuming to give her advice. And there was a frightening sense of exhilaration, wild thrilling danger, almost sexual in its power.

Fear, resentment, and exhilaration. She knew that her brother, James, was experiencing the same feelings. And she knew that he was ignoring the fear, swallowing the resentment, and giving in to the exhilaration. Holding up his hand in the V sign, egging on the crowd. It was unforgivable. A hundred million people were going to see that.

She looked at Ogle. Ogle was looking back at her, a little bit sideways, not wanting to confront her directly.

"There's a third outcome you didn't mention," she said.

"What's that?" Ogle said, startled.

"You start riding the wave because you enjoy the thrill of it. But you don't know what you're doing. And you end up getting slammed into the rocks."

Ogle nodded. "Yes, the world is full of bad surfers."

"My brother, James, is a bad surfer. He's a really bad surfer," Mary Catherine said, "but he thinks he's good. And he seems to have located a really big wave."

Ogle nodded.

"Now, I have no idea, still, what it is that you want, or what you are proposing, or what you think you're going to get out of it," Mary Catherine said. "But I can tell you this. James is a problem. My father and our lawyer Mel and I would all agree on that. And without committing myself or my family to anything financial, let me say that if you can provide some advice in dealing with this problem, it would not be forgotten."

"You did what!?" Mel said.

She knew he was going to say it. "I asked him for advice," Mary

Catherine said. She was in the back of the limousine, riding back to the hospital.

"You shouldn't have done that," Mel said. "You shouldn't even have met with the guy without my being there."

"I was very good. I'm not the sap you think I am, Mel. I didn't make any kind of financial commitment. It was just a couple of people having lunch together, talking. And I asked him for advice."

"About what?"

"About James."

Mel sounded disappointed, wounded. "Mary Catherine. Why would you ask a total stranger for advice in dealing with your own flesh and blood?"

"Because half of my family is dead, or nearly dead, you're away on business, and James is being a complete asshole."

"What do you mean? What's James doing?"

She explained it all to him: the wave, the V sign, the cheers of the crowd, the hysterical reaction of the businessmen inside the bar.

But Mel didn't get it. He listened, he understood, but he hadn't seen it. He hadn't seen the emotion on people's faces. He didn't understand the power of what was going on here. To him it was all TV, it was all Smurfs, and he couldn't bring himself to take it seriously. He didn't get it.

She was glad she had talked to Cy Ogle, who definitely did get it.

"What did this guy say?" Mel said.

"His name is Cy Ogle," Mary Catherine said, "and he said that he would think about it."

"What kind of a name is Ogle?"

"That's beside the point. But he said that it was originally Oglethorpe, which is a big name in Georgia. But somewhere along the line someone had a bastard child, who ended up with the name Ogle, and he's descended from that person."

"So he comes from a long line of bastards."

"Mel!"

"Don't Mel me. He charmed you with some kind of southern shit, didn't he? I can smell it from New York. Told you a bunch of wacky tales about his picturesque family down in the land of cotton, seemed like the nicest guy in the world."

"Mel. Be honest. You don't know anything about handling the media. Do you?"

"I happen to know a lot about it."

"Then how did that happen today? That thing with James? If you're so good at handling the media, then why is it that everyone in the country has the impression, today, that Dad is running for president?"

Mel didn't say anything. She knew she had him.

"Because of what happened today, we have to have a media person," Mary Catherine said. "It doesn't have to be Cy Ogle. But depending on what he does with James, it might very well be."

Mel sounded glum. "I hate the media."

"I know you do, Mel," she said. "That's why we're in deep shit now. We need someone who loves the media. And I can tell you that whatever imperfections Cy Ogle might have, he definitely loves his work."

22

William A. Cozzano was a lousy patient. mary catherine had never understood this until she became a doctor in her own right, and got into the habit of judging people's ability to receive medical treatment.

Good patients were as close as possible to being laboratory rats. They were meek, docile, cooperative, and not very intelligent. The intelligent ones gave you fits because they were always asking questions. They knew full well that they were as smart as the doctor was. That if they were to go off and enroll in a medical school, they'd know as much as the doctor did within a few years.

William A. Cozzano was one of those patients who disputed everything the doctor said. Who forgot to take his medicine - deliberately. Who pushed his recovery schedule into the realm of the absurd. Partly it was a holdover from the war, where you had to keep going even when you were wounded, and partly it came from football, where the standard treatment for broken bones was a layer of athletic tape.

The stroke had been hell for him because it left him unable to argue with his doctors. Mary Catherine had seen it in his face. A doctor would come in and tell him to turn off CNN and get some rest, because he needed sleep. Dad would get a certain look on his face, the look that signaled the beginning of intellectual combat, the look that he got when he was marshaling his arguments and preparing to demolish an opponent. Then he would open his mouth and gibberish would come out. The doctor would turn off the TV, turn off the lights, and leave him there in the dark.

He had been much the same way during his four-day stay at the Radhakrishnan Institute in California. But there it wasn't quite so bad. It was a cross between a research institute and an exclusive private hospital. From the very first contacts the Cozzanos had with the Institute, it was made plain to them that here, the patient wasn't just a laboratory rat. Here, the patient was a partner in his own treatment and recovery. He was consulted on a number of major decisions. He sat in on the meetings where recovery strategy was discussed. These people weren't afraid of intelligent, questioning patients. They welcomed them. They preferred them.

"Neurology is a fascinating science, full of riddles and mysteries," Dr. Radhakrishnan had said during their first meeting, in the conference room on the high bluff over the Pacific Ocean.

Mary Catherine had stifled a smile. Radhakrishnan was a neuro­surgeon, and uncharacteristically, he was talking about what a wonderful discipline neurology was. She wondered if it had anything to do with the fact that the patient's daughter was a neurologist.

"In your therapy," Radhakrishnan continued, "we will be exploring realms that have never been entered. We will watch the data streaming out of your biochip like the astronomers viewing the images from the Voyager spacecraft on its journey to the outer planets. Every day and every hour, we will see new and unexpected things. Enough new data will be generated to write a thousand articles and a hundred Ph.D. dissertations.

"But the information that we receive from the implanted biochip will be reaching us through a narrow bottleneck. You, the patient, will have access to a far broader spectrum of information and experience. This is why we welcome the opportunity to pursue this therapy with a highly intelligent and perceptive patient. We need your help, Governor Cozzano. We need your partnership in this scientific venture."

Dad hadn't spoken a word, just gazed out the big windows at the pounding surf. But Mary Catherine knew that he was hearing and understanding every word. He knew exactly what was going on. And she knew he was excited about it. Two months of being treated like a child by Patricia had left him ravenous for this kind of thing.

She had gone over every inch of the Radhakrishnan Institute. Reviewed the records of their baboon experiments and of their work on an Indian truck driver named Monhinder Singh, who had been miraculously cured using the same therapy. Viewed many hours of videotapes of Singh, taken before the implant and over the course of his subsequent therapy. The results would have been impressive to anyone; to a professional neurologist, they were uncanny.

She had interviewed Dr. Radhakrishnan and some of his top staff members for hours, asking them a lot of hard questions about what could go wrong with this procedure and what steps they had taken to avoid it. She always got good answers to her questions. Answers that seemed to have been prepared in advance, as though they had anticipated all of her thoughts.

But this was a paranoid attitude. She couldn't find anything wrong. The only bad thing that could be said about the Radhakrishnan Institute was that they had made the transition from baboons to humans rather hastily. They had taken big chances. If it had failed, it would have meant that they were rash and foolish. But it had worked, so they were brilliant and daring.

It would have been better - a lot better - if they could have trotted out a dozen or so Mohinder Singhs, at various stages of recovery. Because this one Punjabi truck driver did not make for a track record. He was not a trend. He might just be a fluke.

But William A. Cozzano had taught his daughter to be scrupulously egalitarian, and so at this point in the argument she always caught herself short. Because it wasn't fair to adopt that attitude. The only way to test this thing was by doing it on humans. Sure it would be nice to see a dozen Mohinder Singhs. It'd be nice for the Cozzanos. But what about the second Singh, and the third? They'd be taking a big chance with not much to go on. And their lives were worth just as much as William Cozzano's.

It wasn't fair. That's what Dad would say. It wasn't fair to have other people take all the risk, then reap the benefits after it had become a sure thing.

Besides, this way it was more of an adventure. And she just knew that he'd be thrilled by that idea. Dad was a wild man at heart; he'd always wanted to go out and do crazy things. But his position as the head of the Cozzano clan had forced him to behave conservatively all his life. The stroke had freed him of that oppressive respon­sibility. He had nothing to lose now.

So she signed the papers. Since the stroke, Mary Catherine had been in charge of her father's body. She sent him into that operating room with many doubts about the operation - but in the full confidence that it was what he wanted.

They shaved his head and rolled him into the operating theater at 7:45 a.m. on the morning of March 25, a little more than two months after his initial stroke. Mary Catherine gave him a last kiss on his burnished scalp before they scrubbed him for surgery. Then she pulled on a jacket and went for a long walk along the edge of the bluff, letting the pure Pacific wind blow through her hair. They had said that she could watch the operation if she wanted, but if it turned out to be fatal, she didn't want that to be the last memory of her father.

She found a high rocky outcropping, climbed to the top, and sat down. Below her, half a mile out to sea, a huge, beautiful ketch was tacking upwind. Farther out, she could barely make out the silhouettes of big freighters cruising up and down the California coast.

God, I need a vacation, she thought. Then she thought: this is it. This is my vacation. So she enjoyed her vacation for a few minutes.

Then, hearing a noise behind her, she looked over to see James approaching, fresh from the airport, a big grin on his face.

So much for the vacation. Dealing with James had developed into business.

"You're right," Cy Ogle had said to her on the telephone the day of the Illinois primary. "Your brother's a terrible surfer."

"How'd you find that out?"

"Remember that lunch you and I had?"

"Sure."

"I did the same thing with your brother. Brought him in from

South Bend on a chopper. Bought him lunch at the same place."

"And?"

"The way he handled it was totally different."

"Different how?"

Ogle had chuckled. "You weren't impressed. You weren't impressed by any old limousine. You weren't impressed by a fancy lunch or by my reputation, or by people cheering at you because your last name's Cozzano."

"And he was impressed?"

"Oh, yes. Profoundly impressed. You could see it in his face."

"Stop," she had said. "Don't even describe it to me. I know exactly how he must have looked."

"Well, we had a nice little chat, anyway."

"What did you talk about?"

Ogle had laughed. "Not anything even remotely similar to what you and I talked about. See, you are interested in relationships. James is interested in power. So we talked about power for a while."

This had left Mary Catherine feeling slightly queasy, because she knew that Ogle was exactly right.

It was a testosterone thing. She knew it was. James had been suppressed by Dad. James was small, weak, had a low pain thres­hold, couldn't throw or catch a football, didn't like getting dirty. Dad had been enough of a good father to swallow his dis­appointment. But everyone knew it was present, just under the surface. James just hadn't developed. And as soon as Dad had been removed from the picture, all those pent-up hormones had come flooding out and he had started developing too fast. Developing in the wrong direction, without any guidance from Dad.

He needed a trellis to grow on. He needed it now, before he started any more trouble for the family. But Mary Catherine knew there wasn't a damn thing she could do; in James's current state of testerone overdrive, he was incapable of taking direction, or even advice, from a big sister.

Mel couldn't do it either. Mel and James had never had much to say to each other, they had never had the simpatico that Mel and Mary Catherine did. Mel was a street fighter and James was coddled and naive, despite all of Dad's efforts to toughen him up. The two of them just didn't connect on any level.

This was a case in point. Dad had gone under the knife an hour and a half ago. James should have been there to kiss him good-bye. Mary Catherine knew damn well that people died in surgery and that you had to be there when they went under, because they might never open their eyes again. And she had explained all of this to James. Stated, over and over again, the importance of his being there before the surgery. And he had missed the boat.

"Hey, sis. How you doing?"

He didn't even realize that he had screwed up. That was the frightening part. No self-awareness.

"You're late," she said.

He was shocked, shocked to find that she was mad at him. He shrugged and held his palms up. "My flight was delayed. You know how O'Hare is."

"So do you," Mary Catherine said, "and a Ph.D. candidate at Notre Dame should have the brains to allow for it."

"Jesus," he said, now sounding wounded, "this whole thing has turned you into quite the dragon lady."

"You can say 'bitch' if you want."

"Suit yourself."

She turned away from him and looked out over the ocean again, watching the big ketch come about. Its booms swung across the deck, its jibs went limp and fluttered for a moment, then reinflated and snapped tight again as the boat settled into a new course.

It didn't bother her at all. They were dealing with some heavy-duty shit here. And now, all of a sudden, she understood a lot of things about Dad that she hadn't understood before. Why he was such a tough guy. Why he could be so calculating.

"There's plenty of flights. I thought maybe you would come out last night," Mary Catherine said, trying not to sound quite so harsh.

"I was busy. I had business to take care of."

These words terrified her. She looked into his face. "What kind of business?"

"Take it easy," he said reassuringly. "I'm not running around doing stuff behind your back."

"I've never accused you of doing so," she said. "This is the first time that notion's come up."

He blushed, looked away, got real clumsy for a few seconds. "Well, this thing is my own gig," he said. "Nothing to do with you or the family."

"What thing?"

"I got a job," he said, beaming with pride.

"Well, that's great," she said, "but isn't that going to interfere with your Ph.D. work?"

"No, that's just the thing," he said. "It's part of my Ph.D. work. I'm double clipping. I get paid to do this job, and I get my regular stipend as a grad student, and I'll probably get a book contract out of it too." James had a devilish look on his face, as if he had just outmaneuvered Satan himself.

"Well, James, that's wonderful!" she said. "What kind of job is this?"

"I'm doing a study of the presidential campaign. All of the politicking that's been going on during the primary season. With emphasis on media strategy. And if I play my cards right, I'm pretty sure this could turn into a book eventually."

"That's great. How'd you get on to this idea?"

"It just hit me the other day. I was talking to this guy. He's a big-time campaign media consultant. You might not have heard of him."

"What's his name?"

"Cy. Cyrus Rutherford Ogle."

"Oh. How'd you get hooked up with him?"

"He just invited me out to lunch," James said nonchalantly. "I'm not sure exactly why. But I think that, obviously, because of my family connections, combined with my poli sci expertise, he thought maybe I'd be a good person to know."

"Yes, I should think so," Mary Catherine said, sounding terribly impressed.

"We engaged in small talk for a while, nothing specific. Then he started asking me a lot of questions about my dissertation. He seemed to be fascinated with the topic."

"I'll bet he was."

"I was asking him about some of the work he does and it occurred to me that, since he seemed to be so interested in my work, a mutual back-scratching arrangement might be possible so we hammered this whole thing out, right there at the lunch table. He's giving me access to a number of campaigns - he has friends and proteges working in virtually every important campaign right now. So I get lots of material I wouldn't otherwise have access to."

"Well," Mary Catherine said, "it sounds like you just made a brilliant career move." It was taking a lot of effort to keep from smiling at her brother. He had the same proud, beaming look on his face that he'd had at the age of six, when he caught a big toad in the backyard.

James shrugged. "Yeah. But Jesus, it's a lot of work."

"It is?"

"Oh, yeah. Suddenly I've got all these contacts. Dozens of major sources. All these people to keep track of. I've spent the last few days just talking to people on the phone, setting up a database to keep track of all the information I'll be taking in. I'm going to be running flat-out until Election Day."

"Uh-huh."

"But if there's one thing that I learned from Dad, it's that when you see an opportunity you have to go for it in a big way."

"Well," Mary Catherine said, "I hope you're not biting off too much."

This was manipulation in its purest form. He would have found it patronizing to be congratulated. Better to fret and worry about what a big, manly job James was undertaking.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he said. He was irked, and rapidly getting more so, building up a nice crescendo of self-important rage. "You think I can't handle a big job?"

Mary Catherine shrugged. "I have a lot of respect for you, James," she said noncommitally.

"No, you don't. You still think I'm a little kid. But I'm not. I'm

an adult. And maybe you don't want to admit that fact, now that you've become the self-appointed capo of this family and you think you know what's best for everyone."

"Fine. It's your choice," she said.

"I've done big jobs before. And I'm going to do this one. I'm going to succeed."

"Good. I wish you the best of luck."

James shut up for a moment, calming himself down. "It's been hard, being the son of the Great Man."

"I know it has been," she said. "I know it's been really rough."

"There've been a lot of times when I felt like the idiot son, you know. A lot of Dad's old cronies treat me like a little kid."

By this, Mary Catherine knew that he was referring to Mel.

"But Cy is totally different," he continued. "He treated me with respect. As an equal. He had no doubts whatsoever that I could handle this job. And I'm grateful to him for that."

So am I, Mary Catherine thought.

"You should meet this guy sometime," James said.

"Maybe I should."

An interesting thought had occurred to Mary Catherine. Maybe Cy Ogle had manipulated her just as brilliantly as he had James.

Or maybe not. She had handed him something close to a quid pro quo: help me out with James, this loose cannon on the deck of the good ship Cozzano, and then we'll talk some more. And he had delivered. He had done it in less than a week. He had solved a big problem for them.

Cy Ogle might be a person that they could use.

23

Eleanor's first hint that anything funny was going on was when she heard Doreen, in the next trailer over, going, "Whoo-ee! Look at this, baby!" in the singsong falsetto that she used to attract the attention of her children. Meanwhile, Eleanor could hear the sound of tires grinding and popping on gravel, right outside of her trailer.

Eleanor looked out the window. Mobile homes, like jet airplanes, offered great views off to the sides but you couldn't see what was directly in front or behind. All she could see was the side of Doreen's trailer, and Doreen's big hairdo in one of the windows, flanked by the faces of her three kids, their eyes and mouths wide open to accept new input. They were all looking at something that was going on in front of Eleanor's trailer.

It must be the Nazis. They were coming to get her. Eleanor ran up to the front of the trailer, slapping the chain on to her door as she went by it. She got up to the front where two tiny little windows looked forward, and she peeled the windowshade back just a little.

It was a big old Lincoln Town Car, navy blue, freshly polished, the cleanest and prettiest car within several miles of this trailer park. You could back it into an empty slot here and make it pass for a mobile home.

All the doors were open. Several men were getting out. They were all young men. They were all wearing sunglasses. At least two of them had walkie-talkies as well, and they were using them. And they were looking around, scanning all points of the compass through their dark glasses, swiveling their heads back and forth like

searchlights on a guard tower. One of them went up to the Datsun, put his face up close to the silvered glass, and cupped his hands around his eyes.

For the first few moments, Eleanor was convinced that they were Nazi hit men who had come to blow her away. But that was just paranoia. The followers of Earl Dudley Strang were not affluent men in suits and Lincoln Town Cars. And if they wished to do away with her, they would come in the middle of the night like the jackals they were. Not in broad daylight, in a big car, like this.

Besides, they didn't act like hit men, or how she thought hit men would act. They had gotten out of the car immediately on arrival, but then they just stopped. They made no move to enter Eleanor's trailer.

Eleanor raised her windowshade a little more, feeling bolder, and noticed that there was still one man inside the Lincoln Town Car. He was sitting in the middle of the backseat and he was talking on the telephone.

He finished his conversation, hung up, and scooted down to the end of the seat. He climbed up out of the car, assisted by one of the young men in the dark glasses, and stood up on the gravel. He squinted into the unfiltered sunlight, his face wrinkling up tremendously, like a High Plains arroyo.

She would have recognized him on the dark side of the moon: it was Senator Caleb Roosevelt Marshall, Republican of Colorado. He was so old that he was actually named after Teddy, not Franklin, Roosevelt. And he was so conservative that, during the thirties, when a lot of his idealistic young peers were going to Spain to fight on behalf of the revolutionaries there, he had volunteered to fight for the Fascists.

He had been virulently opposed to America's participation in World War II. A strong supporter of General MacArthur and a fierce advocate of "nuking the evil Chinks" (his words) in Korea. He had spent most of the fifties rooting out "Comsymps" from Capitol Hill and the media. He had called Goldwater a pinko. He had seen both the Berlin crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis as golden opportunities for a first nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, and had stood side-by-side with Curtis Lemay in the recommendation that North Vietnam be bombed back into the Stone Age.

He had run abortively for president in four decades, from the fifties through the eighties, whenever he felt that the frontrunning Republican candidate was not gloomy, threatening, and violent enough. Consistently voted against affirmative action. Though Eleanor knew her civil rights history well enough to know that he had astonished just about everyone by voting in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

He was like that: he was fringy enough to teeter on the edge of becoming a one-dimensional stereotype, but one or twice a year he would do something freakish and astonishing. He had gained the grudging affection of some people by consistently hating Richard Nixon's guts from the very beginning. He had come down on the side of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and delivered a lengthy and profane speech in her defense on the Senate floor, using it as an occasion to lament the total implosion of American values.

Just when his image seemed on the verge of being rehabilitated, he would do something reactionary. For the last several years, he had celebrated Animal Rights Day by going out to his family ranch in southwestern Colorado and branding a few calves in front of the TV cameras. It got him tons of publicity, reinforced his caveman image, and made him wildly popular among farmers, westerners, and anyone else who made money from animals. The man knew how to get a campaign contribution.

Now this weathered, deathless, inexplicable gnome was standing in front of her trailer, surrounded by men that, she now realized, were Secret Service agents. She did not know if she should run away and hide, or welcome him.

Soon enough he was pounding on her front door and she had to make up her mind. She pulled her hair back and wrapped a scrunchie around it, went to the door, and opened it. But it was still chained shut and so it only came open a few inches. She found herself staring through the chain at Caleb Roosevelt Marshall. They were of roughly the same height.

"Take it easy, woman," he said, glancing at the chain. "I'm not here to burn a cross on your goddamn lawn."

She closed the door, unchained it, and opened it all the way. "Senator Marshall?" she said.

"Eleanor Boxwood Richmond?"

"Yes."

"Slayer of Erwin Dudley Strang?"

"Well..."

"Fastest tongue in the West?"

She laughed.

"If you would invite me in, I would have a few things to discuss with you."

"Come in."

"You don't have to invite any of these people in." Marshall said. He turned around and slammed the door in the face of an agent.

"Can I offer you anything to drink?" she said.

"I am in suspended animation. The only things I am allowed to drink are strange concoctions brewed up by pharmacists. You would not be able to afford them, and I can only do so by taking honoraria," he said. He talked like a guy who was used to having his voice heard by a million people.

"Well, then, please sit down anywhere you like."

"Whenever I lower myself to a seated or reclining position, it occurs to me that I may never stand on my feet again," he said. "To a man of my age, even sitting down becomes a morbid thing. So I hope it will not make you feel awkward if I stand up."

"Not at all." Eleanor pulled up a tall bar stool, one of the artifacts that they had salvaged from the wreck of their middle-class lifestyle, and sat down on it without losing any altitude. This way she could still talk to him face-to-face.

"I know that this conversation has already gotten off on the wrong foot because you think that I am an evil vicious old man who hates persons of your race," Senator Marshall said.

"The thought had occurred to me."

"But in fact, the only thing I hate is bullshit. I hate bullshit because I grew up on ranch and I spent the first three decades of my life shoveling it. I went into politics largely because it was a desk job and naturally I thought that in a desk job I would not have to shovel any more bullshit. Of course nothing could have been further from the truth. So you see I have spent my whole life up to my nostrils in bullshit and consequently know more about it, and hate it more, than anyone else on the face of the earth.

"Now, the reason that a lot of Negroes think I hate them is simple: there is a whole lot of bullshit in racial politics, even more than in other aspects of politics, and when I react against that bullshit, they think I'm reacting against them. But I'm not. I'm just reacting against their bullshit politics. Like affirmative action. That's bullshit. But civil rights isn't bullshit at all. I voted for that."

"I know you did."

"And all these different terms - colored, Negro, black, Afro-American - that's all bullshit too. They're always willing to come up with new rods for Negroes, but never to actually do something that will help them, and that's bullshit. The basic fact is that all people should be treated the same, as specified in the goddamn Constitution, and everything else is bullshit."

"Well, Senator, I am aware that you are not a totally one-dimensional person, and so I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt as long as you are a guest in my home."

"I thought you would. A lot of Negroes hate my guts and start jumping up and down and organizing protest rallies as soon as I come over the horizon, but I figured you would be able to see things a little more clearly. You know why?"

"Why?"

"Because you have a bullshit detector as good as mine, and that is a rare quality."

"Well, thank you, Senator."

"And you're not afraid to use it."

"Well, that was a somewhat unusual thing for me to do. I was very upset at the time and not thinking clearly."

Senator Marshall was peeved and disappointed. "Bullshit! You were thinking as clearly as the human mind has ever thought. What do you mean, you weren't thinking clearly?"

"I mean that I was raised to have good manners and be diplomatic, and I would not have violated those standards if I had not been at the end of my rope emotionally."

"Well, you and I have different interpretations of this. Shit, I've been at the end of my rope emotionally since I was five years old."

"This fact has been widely commented upon," Eleanor said.

"You were perfectly justified in saying everything you said," Senator Marshall said. "Do you realize that Earl Strong may never recover, politically, from what you did to him?"

"I think you are being very optimistic to say that."

"Bullshit. This is your polite upbringing talking, isn't it?"

"Possibly."

"I got a stack of poll results an inch thick. We have been watch­ing this thing. Hell, I wanted to come over here and congratulate you the same night you did it. But instead I waited a few days for the poll results. And lady, you blew that son of a bitch to smith­ereens. You ripped that little tick's head off. You deserve a medal."

Eleanor laughed. "A medal? I'd rather have a job."

Senator Marshall stuck out his right hand and looked at Eleanor expectantly.

She didn't know what to do. The man was so weird. He was weird, he knew he was weird, he knew that she knew it, and he didn't care.

Finally politeness took over and she reached out and shook his hand. He seized hers, not with the perfunctory squeeze of a politician, but with the powerful grip of a man who has to pull himself up out of chairs and beds. He didn't let go.

"Done," he said, "you're hired."

Eleanor laughed wildly. "You're crazy!" she said, "what are you talking about?"

"I don't know."

"So you're just kidding."

"Oh no. I sure as hell ain't kidding. You're definitely hired. I just haven't worked through all the bullshit yet."

"The bullshit?"

"Job tide, GSA level, what kind of desk to get you, what kind of goddamn picture to hang on the wall of your office. See, one of the things you learn, when you've hired a lot of people, and then fired most of them, is that when you find a quality person, you hire them right away and work out the details later. And I just hired you."

"Just on the strength of the fact that I said some nasty things to Earl Strong."

"You said some true things," Caleb Roosevelt Marshall said, "which is something that few people in Washington are capable of doing. And you said them well, which is just as unusual."

He still hadn't let go of her hand.

"I would have expected you to like Earl Strong."

"Ha! You think I'll support anyone who comes along and spouts a few positions similar to mine. What do you think I am, a senile old moron?"

"Isn't that how it works?"

"Positions change. People don't. Earl Strong may or may not always be a so-called conservative populist. But he will definitely always be a pencil-neck Hitler wannabe with a face from Wal-Mart, as you pegged him. I don't want to serve with him in the Senate. And you may have saved me from that fate. So I owe you a job."

"Well, I'm not sure I want to work with you."

"Eleanor Boxwood Richmond," he said, "you and I got exactly the same politics. Only thing is, you don't know it yet."

"How can you say that? I've been a liberal Democrat all my life."

Still gripping her hand, Senator Marshall shook his head dismissively. "All that Democrat/Republican stuff is bullshit," he said. "And as far as liberal versus conservative, well, people are very promiscuous in the way they use those words. They don't really mean anything. Within those two camps there are very wide divisions. And between those two camps, there is a lot more overlap than you think. None of that bullshit really matters. The only thing that matters is values."

"Values?"

"Values. I've got 'em. You've got 'em. Earl Strong doesn't. That means you and I are on the same side. We have to stick together, you and I."

"And that means you're going to give me a job."

"I already figured it out. Took me a few minutes, but I figured it out. I need a health and human services liaison for my Denver office. We can start you on Monday. You'll work your ass off and make forty-five thousand plus full medical. Interested?"

"What can I say?" Indeed, what could she say? "Sure. I'll take it. What do I have to do?"

"Answer irate phone calls from parasites who want to know what became of their welfare checks.

"Okay. I can do that."

"Done," the Senator said, and let go of her hand finally.

"One question."

"Yeah?"

"Do you expect me to blow these people off, or to actually help them? Because if someone calls me wanting to find their welfare check, I intend to help them out."

"None of them vote," the Senator said, "so they can all go to hell as far as I'm concerned. You can handle it any way you want."

24

The ride took her in slowly through Commerce City and north Denver, the attic of the West: square miles of warehouses, stacks of empty cargo pallets that must have consumed whole forests, entire blocks of businesses devoted to truck clutches. Eleanor had seen it too many times to count, but sitting on The Ride in her one and only decent dress, on her way to work - work - she saw it all from a new perspective, like a queen surveying her domain.

The sky was always sapphire blue when Eleanor looked straight up, but as she tracked it down toward the horizon it faded to a hot yellowish brown as if something had singed it around the edges. Eleanor was never sure if the stuff in the air was pollution or airborne topsoil, but it usually gave her a bad feeling about wherever she was going. She was tired of being able to see so far, and wanted to be hemmed in a little bit.

Downtown Denver fit that bill. It always looked clean because it was built-up, and so you couldn't see far enough to notice how dirty the air was. Eleanor sat on a bench for a while, waiting for another Ride, and marveled at the place. When you were used to the dusty flatlands out by the arsenal, the smallest things - a freshly painted GODS drop box sitting on a street corner, a young woman wearing white stockings, a Volvo with water beaded up on its hood from the car wash - looked impossibly clean and new, like images from a Kodak or Polaroid advertisement.

This was the world where a lot of people lived their whole lives. A world where Eleanor had lived for many years but that now looked like an alien planet to her dusty bloodshot eyes, and where she had just been given the tiniest of handholds.

Tree-lined Pennsylvania Street ran north-south behind the state capitol. At some point in Denver's early boom years it had been the fashionable place for barons to construct their mansions - not just homes, but seats of political and social influence. The architecture was diverse, and exuberant bordering on eccentric, including huge Victorian homes, plantation-style classical structures, arched-and-turreted Romanesques, and one especially large and bizarre structure, a red sandstone mission building that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Alamo.

Senator Caleb Roosevelt Marshall used that building as his home office, and he referred to it as the Alamo, which was not a popular joke among his Mexican-American constituents, but then he was not the type to care.

Like any big rambling eccentric old building, it had good offices and bad ones. The office assigned to Eleanor Richmond was especially bad, but that was a fact that wouldn't even occur to her until she had been working there for a while. When she showed up for her first day as Health and Human Services Liaison, all she cared about was that she had a job. And a damn good job, as these things went.

She was wearing her interview dress. She wasn't sure why. She had worn it to all of her job interviews in the past several years and it hadn't done a thing for her. She had interviewed for her job with Senator Marshall in a Towson State University sweatshirt and nonmatching Army sweatpants. But this was the one dress that she had been at pains to take care of through all the turbulence in her life. She had somehow thought that she could never become a true bag lady if she owned one clean, decent dress. So now she was wearing it to work. When the paychecks started coming in, she could go back to the Boulevard Mall, this time as a paying customer, and cut a swath through Nordstrom, like General Sherman plowing through Dixie.

The first thing that anyone said to her was a sound effect: "Foop-foop-foop."

She had been walking down a hallway in her interview dress, carrying a box full of photos and other personal effects in her arms, looking into each door as she went by, trying to find the one that belonged to her. And when she finally found it, walked into the small windowless room (later she learned it had been the walk-in closet of a railway baroness), and set her box down on the crated and elbow-worn formica of the desktop, she heard it. She turned around. A man was standing in her office doorway. She didn't like him.

He was in his mid-to-late twenties, or maybe he was an older guy who just looked young. He was wearing a pinstriped suit with cowboy boots. His comb had left visible, parallel grooves through his heavily gelled brown hair, like the tracks of fleeing dinosaurs in a fresh volcanic mudflow. He had sparkly gray eyes and high mischievous eyebrows that could have made him look wild and fun, if he could have ditched the suit and the gel for, say, a pair of shorts and a long outdoorsman's mane. But instead he struck Eleanor as unnaturally pinned back.

When she first saw him, he was leaning into her office doorway, holding one index finger straight up in the air, rotating his hand around in a circle, saying , "Foop-foop-foop."

"Excuse me?" she said.

"Somebody ought to put a revolving door on this office," he said. "Seems like I get a new neighbor in here every week - Hello," he said, segueing in midsentence like a game show host, and turning the rotating index finger into an outstretched right hand, "Shad Harper. You'd be Eleanor."

Eleanor took half a step toward him and began to extend her right hand. He dove in, grabbed her hand too soon, seized the very tips of her fingers, squeezed them together hard, and pumped for a few seconds.

"Eleanor Richmond," she said, but this hint was completely lost on him, as she knew it would be.

"Good to know you, Eleanor."

"You have the next office, Mr. Harper?"

"Yeah. Come on over any time you want to have a look at the courtyard," he said, widening his eyes just a bit and staring significantly at the blank wall behind Eleanor's desk. The office of Shad Harper was a big old master bedroom or something, and she could already see that he had lots of windows.

These were all things that would bother her later. At the moment, nothing could penetrate the endorphin buzz that she had from actually being on a payroll.

"Thank you," she said, "you're very kind."

"Saw you on TV. That was quite a little tantrum you threw in front of Earl Strong there."

"And what do you do for the Senator?" she said.

"Oh," he said, as if he were surprised that she didn't already know, "I'm the BLM liaison."

"BLM?"

"Bureau of Land Management," he recited, with calculated nonchalance.

Looking over his shoulder across the hallway, Eleanor could see a bleached longhorn skull hanging on one of the rare parts of Harper's office wall that did not consist of windows. That, and the cowboy boots, told the story of Shad Harper.

Bureau of Land Management. Colorado had a lot of land that needed to be managed. A lot of voters lived on or near that land. When the land did get managed, it was through federal programs. Shad Harper must be keeping tabs on a lot of money.

He was very young. Which was not a problem in and of itself; Eleanor had known a lot of bright young things who were a pleasure to be around. But Shad Harper didn't seem to realize that he was still a young man. He ought to be out riding a mountain bike around Boulder. Any man of his age who was not out goofing off was difficult to trust.

He raised his eyebrows, showing exaggerated concern, and puckered his lips into a silent O shape. "I think your phone's ringing, Eleanor," he said.

Eleanor turned around and looked at her phone, an elaborate, high-tech, multiline model with lots of tiny little buttons on it. Each button had tiny little red and green lights next to it. Some buttons had red lights going. Some had green lights going. Some had both. Some of the lights were blinking others were not. It looked like a Christmas decoration.

"Well, thank you," she said, "but I don't hear anything."

"I took the liberty of turning the ringer off while this office was vacant," he said. "It was driving me crazy. I gotta get back. I'll see you later, Eleanor."

He dodged out the door and across the hallway and made a diving grab at his own telephone, then burst into a good-natured, booming, masculine welcome. Whomever Shad Harper was talking to, if he had been there in person, Shad would have been pounding him on the back and possibly even giving him noogies.

Eleanor set her box of stuff down on her desk, went around behind it, and looked at the silently ringing telephone. She wanted to sit down, but there was no chair in the office, just a desk.

She knew the deal here. Shad Harper, being a boy, had figured out how to turn off the telephone's ringer. And she, being a girl, was supposed to sit helplessly for a while, and then go across the hallway and meekly ask him to turn it back on for her. Ten minutes into her job, she would already owe him one.

She already knew that she would rather shove a freshly sharpened pencil into her eye than ask Shad Harper for a favor. She picked up the telephone, clamping the handset down into its cradle with her thumb, and rotated it around, looking at all the tiny little switches and jacks and plugs and connectors. It took some looking and some experimenting, but eventually she found it. She flicked a switch. The phone rang.

She picked it up. But before it even reached her ear she could hear a conversation, already in progress. It was Shad Harper listening to a crusty old rancher somewhere complaining about the cultural and genetic deficiencies of the Mexican race. He was doing this by listing all of the ways that, in his view, they were similar to "niggers." After the man made each point, Shad Harper would say, "Uh-huh," in a chuckling and indulgent tone of voice.

Her phone was still ringing. She pushed another button.

It was Senator Marshall himself, now in D.C., talking to someone about polls. Her phone was still ringing; she pushed another button.

It was a young black woman who apparently worked here in this office, talking trash with another young black woman who apparently worked in someone else's office. Her phone was still ringing; she pushed another button.

"Hello?" a voice said. White female. Screaming kids in background.

"Hello, Senator Marshall's office," Eleanor said.

"I know I already reached the Senator's goddamn office," the woman said, "but who am I talking to?"

"Mrs. Richmond. Health and Human Services Liaison."

"Finally. Jeezus, I been on hold for a quarter of an hour and my kids are going nuts here. Kin you hear 'em?"

The sound of the kids got louder for a few moments and Eleanor realized that this woman must be holding the phone out toward them, waving it around a motel room or trailer full of screeching and fighting rug rats like a rock star pointing his microphone at the crowd. Another Commerce City resident, no doubt.

"Yes, I believe I can, ma'am," Eleanor said. "How may I help you?"

A brief moment of stunned silence on the other end of the line. "Well, didn't I already just explain that about three times?" Then, her voice farther away: "Brittany! Ashley! You stay away from your goddamn brother or I'll tan your hides!"

"I don't know, ma'am," Eleanor said, "you never explained it to me."

"Well, I explained it to the other gal."

"Well, ma'am, I'm not quite sure who the other gal is. But I'd be happy to listen if you'd care to explain it again."

Another silence. Eleanor couldn't figure out why this woman was being so quiet until her voice came back on again, and it was obvious that she had begun to cry. "Well, I ain't going through the whole goddamn thing again! But let me tell you, bitch, that if it don't get taken care of today, I'll-

"You'll what, ma'am?"

"I'll go out and find wherever it is that I'm s'posed to register and get myself registered to vote and go out and vote against that old fuck that you work for next time he comes up for reelection! Bitch!" Then the woman slammed the phone down.

The phone began ringing immediately. Eleanor was starting to get the hang of this now; she pushed the button with the blinking light next to it.

"Hello, Senator Marshall's office," she said.

"Finally!" someone said. Black female. Then, away from the phone: "Hey, I finally got through!" Then, back into the phone: "You have any idea how long I been waiting on the line?"

"A quarter of an hour or so?"

"Shit, I been waiting all day."

"It's only 9:13 - but I'm sorry for the delay, ma'am. How can I assist you?"

"I took my little daughters to a unlicensed day-care at my neighbor's house down the street and when I come home from work, her boyfriend had come in during the day and molested 'em, and I want to know if I can force him to take an AIDS test."

"Did you call the police?"

"Shit no. Why would I want to call them?"

"Because a very serious crime has been committed."

"Shit. I called you for serious advice, girl."

"I'm giving it to you. Call the cops. Tell them what happened. Send the bastard to jail."

"This G done already told me if call the cops he come kill me."

"Ma'am, how could being killed possibly be any worse than having your daughters raped?"

Stunned silence. "What kind of an attitude is that?"

"It's a reasonable attitude. It's the kind of attitude that any parent should have."

"Well, who are you to be telling me this?"

"I'm a woman who was raised right by her parents and who's been trying to raise her two kids right."

"What are you saying, that I ain't been raised right?"

"That's exactly what I'm saying, if you care so little for those two precious daughters of yours that you won't even seek justice for them. If anyone in my family ever got raped, nobody would rest until the perpetrator was dead or behind bars."

"Well, I didn't call you up so you could give me abuse." "Girlfriend," Eleanor said, "I'm gonna tell you something real important right now and you better listen."

"I'm listening," the woman said. She sounded cowed and meek now.

"This that I am saying to you is not abuse. It's the truth. It's just that sometimes the truth is so harsh that when people hear it spoken, it sounds like abuse. And one of the problems we got in this country, not just among black people but with everyone, is that everyone is so easy to offend nowadays that no one is willing to say the things that are true. Now, I just told you what to do. You go and do it. And if you have to go out and get a gun to protect you from that son of a bitch that raped your daughters, you damn well better do it, because that's your responsibility, and if you can't handle it, then you don't deserve to have those two little angels that are a precious gift from God."

Eleanor slammed the phone down. It started ringing.

"Senator Marshall's office."

The creaky voice of a very old man said, "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!"

"Good morning, Senator Marshall, how are you?"

"Wide awake and full of inspiration, after that!"

"After what?"

"Your motivational talk to that young woman. Well done!"

"You were listening to that?"

"I always listen in on my liaison staff," Senator Marshall said. "It's an essential part of the job. And if I had managed to get through to you before you actually swung into action, I would have given you fair warning. But now you know."

"Well, I don't normally shoot my mouth off this early in the morning, but-"

"You weren't shooting your mouth off. You were doing just fine. All those people out there are crying for more welfare checks when what they really need is to have someone like you pound some common sense into their heads."

"I don't necessarily agree with that," Eleanor said, mortified.

"Anyway, nice to see you changed your position on gun control. You're going to fit right in at the Alamo!"

"Who said anything about gun control?"

"You did," Senator Marshall said. "You were pro-gun control, weren't you?"

"In theory, yes," Eleanor said, "but I have a gun, and I know how to use it."

"Well, tell me something. If that woman you were just talking to had to fill out a bunch of forms and get permission from the government to have a gun, she wouldn't be able to take the advice you just gave her, would she?"

Eleanor shook her head in exasperation. "You are just full of piss and vinegar, aren't you?"

"No, I just like a good discussion, is all."

"I have important people to talk to," Eleanor said, and hung up on him. Her phone rang immediately.

25

Aaron Green put his feet up on his desk at Green Biophysical Systems in Lexington, Massachusetts, enjoying the first lull in the action since his big conversation with Cy Ogle back in January. They had ironed out all of the problems that they could think of having to do with the PIPER miniaturization project. Responsibility had been transferred to the shoulders of the Pacific Netware people. Aaron had brought in a New York Times and a Boston Globe, and was reading some astonishing results from the Illinois primary, which had taken place the day before.

Several members of the party in power had challenged the incumbent President. Usually such efforts were purely symbolic, but the President's policy on the national debt had provided fodder for a more serious challenge this time around, and these candidates had racked up some surprisingly high numbers.

The situation in the other party was even more interesting. There were two announced candidates - three, if you counted the Reverend William Joseph Sweigel, which almost no one did. Everyone knew, and had known since Super Tuesday, that the real race was between Tip McLane and Norman Fowler, Jr., the boy billionaire of Grosse Pointe.

But apparently in the last week before the Illinois primary, unspecified persons had initiated a write-in campaign for William A. Cozzano, the Governor of Illinois, who was in the hospital recovering from a stroke. It seemed to be a genuine, spontaneous ground swell. People had begun showing up in T-shirt stores and asking to have Cozzano printed on shirts and hats. Crudely fashioned, xeroxed Cozzano posters had begun showing up on mailboxes and in car windows.

In yesterday's primary, a lot of people had written in the Governor's name. A lot of people. So many that the counting of the ballots had been delayed. But the results available as of the middle of the night before, when the newspapers had gone to press, suggested that Cozzano had actually won a number of precincts, made a strong showing overall, and might actually come in second to Normal Fowler, Jr. He had been so strong, in fact, that he had actually gotten several thousand write-in votes in the other party's primary.

When Aaron saw the preliminary numbers printed in the paper, he turned on the TV in his office to see if he could get some up-to-date numbers. He never used to pay attention to this stuff, but since he had started hanging out with Ogle he had become very election conscious.

The news networks were full of Cozzano. Cozzano in Vietnam. Cozzano being carried around on the shoulders of fellow Bears. Cozzano raking leaves in front of his big house in some backwater town in Illinois. Cozzano waving from the window of his hospital room in Champaign. And the name Cozzano, crudely printed on T-shirts and homemade yard signs.

He was startled to realize that someone was standing in his office doorway. It was Marina, the office manager, word processing and desktop publishing genius, fixer, diplomat, you name it. She looked a little dreamy. If this had been a Warner Brothers cartoon, she would have had stars and birds circling around her head.

"I just got the weirdest phone call," she said.

"Tell me about it," Aaron said.

"This guy called up. A guy with a southern accent. I think it's that guy you've been dealing with out in California."

"Cy Ogle."

"Yeah."

"Well, what did Mr. Ogle have to say?"

"That I was fired."

"He said what?"

"That I was fired. That the corporation was undergoing a restructuring and that I could apply for reemployment later."

Aaron was more nonplussed than he was angry. It had to be Ogle's weird sense of humor at work. "Well, who the hell is Ogle to be saying stuff like that?"

"Exactly what I asked him. He said he was the chairman of the board of directors."

"I'm the chairman," Aaron said.

"I know that."

Another person appeared in the hallway, standing behind Marina. It was Greg. College buddy of Aaron's. Cofounder of the corporation. Chief biologist. "I have just been informed that I'm fired too," he said. "But maybe it's not so bad since our stock is selling for twice its normal value today. So I'm worth twice as much."

"Good," Marina said, "so am I." Marina had lots to stock too.

"Selling?" Aaron said. "None of our stock has changed hands in months."

"Get with it," Greg said. "Fifty-five percent of it changed hands at 9:05 this morning."

"What you're saying is that our venture capitalists sold us to someone else."

"That's what it amounts to."

"And Cy Ogle claims to be that someone," Marina said.

The telephone on Aaron's desk began to purr. Aaron picked it up, indicating with a hand gesture that it was, okay for Greg and Marina to stay in the room.

"You're probably pissed because I just fired half of our company," Ogle said. "Which is understandable. It's hard to run a tight ship based on emotion and personal loyalty. Damn hard."

"Who's next? Me?"

"Nope. You're staying on, along with your two electronics guys. We can use them. Everyone else has served their purpose."

"How am I supposed to run an office without Marina?"

"You don't have to worry about running an office anymore. We have plenty of room down here in Falls Church."

"But I don't live in Falls Church, Virginia. I live in Arlington, Massachusetts."

"Then you better get used to a hell of a long commute," Ogle said, "because a moving truck is showing up at your office door in five minutes to pick up all your equipment and drive it down here."

"Now, wait just a second," Aaron finally said. He had been fighting the impulse to get pissed off ever since this weirdness started. "This is just totally unacceptable. You can't just uproot our lives like this. Hell, I don't even know for sure that you're the real chairman!"

"I am," Ogle said, "but there's no point in your getting pissed off at me."

"There certainly is," Aaron said, "if you're the chairman."

"I'm the chairman of Green Biophysical Systems as of 9:05 a.m.," Ogle said, "but as of 9:03 a.m. I was no longer the chairman of Ogle Data Research."

"Huh?"

"I got bought out too."

"By whom?"

"A whole bunch of folks. MacIntyre Engineering. The Coover Fund. Gale Aerospace. Pacific Netware. They own me now. And the first thing they did was tell me to buy you. So I did. And then they told me to initiate a radical downsizing program. So I did. And part of that is closing the Lexington office and moving it down here to Falls Church."

"And all of these events took place during the first five minutes of the business day."

"Yup."

"Gee," Aaron said, "a guy could almost get the impression that the groundwork for this whole thing had been laid well in advance."

"Draw your own conclusions. Throw a tantrum. Call me names. Just don't be late for the meeting."

Aaron rolled his eyes. "What meeting would that be?"

"Emergency board meeting for Ogle Data Research, which you're invited to sit in on, to be followed immediately by an emergency board meeting for Green Biophysics."

"When and where?"

"Right here at Seven Corners, at two o'clock this afternoon. That should give you time to grab a pair of shuttle flights. Oh, and Aaron?"

"Yes?"

"We bought you out at twice your book value."

"So I heard."

"We'll double that figure again if any of your existing stockholders want to sell out. But they have to do it today."

"I'll pass that along."

"See you at two o'clock."

Aaron hung up his phone. Cy Ogle's phone. MacIncyre's, Gale's, Coover's, and Tice's phone.

"The bad news is, we just got hit by the financial equivalent of Desert Storm," he said, "and we lost. The good news is that we all just quadrupled our net worth."

Marine laughed, verging on hysteria.

"Not bad for an hour's work," Greg said, looking at his watch. It was ten o'clock.

A big, handsome head shot of Governor William A. Cozzano flashed up on the television screen. Roaring white noise came out of the speaker, the sound of a wildly cheering multitude.

Aaron sold his stock. There was no point in hanging on to the stuff when he knew that it would drop to one-quarter of its current value by the end of the day. He took a taxi to Logan, hopped the shuttle to LaGuardia, walked across the concourse and hopped another shuttle to National Airport in Washington.

As the shuttle twisted and veered down the lower Potomac, Aaron looked out the window and saw the Washington Monument, the Mall, which seemed prematurely green to a person used to New England winters, and the dome of the Capitol. He realized, somewhat to his own astonishment, that this was the first time he had been to Washington, D.C., since his high-school band trip fifteen years before.

It was thirty degrees warmer here, humid, green, with flowers coming out all over the place. Spring, which hadn't even started in Boston, was a memory here. It gave him a feeling of being out of it, of being way behind the times. He got on a little bus that inched its way through the airport's pathetically constricted traffic pattern and finally let him off at Avis. There, he climbed into a brand-new navy-blue Taurus. It was about a hundred and twenty degrees inside the car, and the controls for the air conditioner were already set to MAX.

D.C. was going to take getting used to. His car in Boston didn't even have air-conditioning. He was going to have to buy a new goddamn car.

He went right out and got badly lost. That was okay, he had plenty of time, and he felt like driving around lost for a while. Eventually he pulled into a 7-Eleven and bought a big oversized street map atlas for northern Virginia and figured out where Falls Church was: just a few miles due west of D.C. Right in the middle of that was a place called Seven Corners, where a whole lot of roads came together. It was difficult to miss. From its folksy name, Aaron was expecting it to be sort of a quaint, woodsy crossroads.

It wasn't. It was a place where seven different franchise ghettos intersected and piled their congestion on top of each other, a universe of asphalt parking lots stewing in the Virginia sun. And most of it was a couple of decades old, and showing its age. It had been superseded by newer and nicer competitors farther away from the center of the metropolis.

And because Aaron Green had come to know and appreciate the style of Cyrus Rutherford Ogle, he knew where to look. He eventually found his way into the vast, mostly empty parking lot of a big old shopping center at the heart of Seven Corners. It was a ghost mall. The anchor store, the behemoth at the dead center of the mall, was a windowless monolith, sheathed in a sort of white-gravel substance that had probably been sparkling and clean back in the fifties but which had now gone dully gray and become stained with long vertical streaks of rust. A constellation of rusty, decapitated bolts projected from the wall way up high, and

Aaron could see that it had once been a major department store. But now the sign was torn down and the row of plate-glass display windows and double doors that stretched along the entire front of the building at sidewalk level had been replaced by particle board, painted black. Aaron walked into the place without hesitation.

It was just like the Cadillac dealership, except bigger. And, at the moment, it was somewhat noisier and more crowded than Ogle's operations tended to be when he was between campaigns. More colorful, too. A lot of people were working here right now, mostly young people, most female, mostly black. Most of them were wearing bright new T-shirts. And all of the T-shirts had the word Cozzano printed on them. They were operating T-shirt printing machines. Printing up more of them.

But they weren't fancy. The insignia going on to those shirts (and hats and sweatshirts and windbreakers) was not a nifty logo, like a national campaign would use. Everything was being done in simple block letters, with no graphics. It was exactly what you would get if you went into a seedy discount T-shirt printing place at a carnival midway and asked them to print the word Cozzano on to a T-shirt.

The same could be said of the crude 8½-by-ll campaign posters floating out of the xerox machines, and of the campaign signs, being stapled together from fence pickets and refrigerator boxes and hand-lettered by more women in cheap Cozzano T-shirts.

One corner was given over to folding tables with many telephones on them. Young people sat behind the tables talking on the phones. There were also a dozen desks with older people, suit-wearing people, sitting behind them, and these people were talking on the phones too. On the wall behind all of this was a large map of the fifty states, nearly obscured with little colored pins, streamers, flags, and yellow notes.

"That right there," said the familiar voice of Cy Ogle, "is the spontaneous ground-swell department."

Aaron ignored him. Ogle walked around until he was standing in Aaron's peripheral vision. He had pulled a bright yellow Cozzano T-shirt over his dress shirt and donned a Cozzano skimmer.

"See, the problem with spontaneous ground swells is they are so damn disorganized," Ogle said. "And that don't cut it, because the ballot rules in the various states are just unbelievably complicated. For example, in New York-"

"Spare me," Aaron said. "Spare me."

"Anyway, welcome to the metacampaign," Ogle said.

"Okay, I'll bite. What is the metacampaign?"

"Y'know how, after the New Hampshire primaries, the com­mentators always concentrate on the runner-up? They never seem to give a shit about who actually won the damn thing. All they want to talk about is who came in second. Who's got momentum. Big Mo. That's the metacampaign. The struggle for the hearts and minds of the media, and of big contributors."

When Aaron first came into the Pentagon Towers offices of Ogle Data Research, carrying half a dozen PIPER prototypes in a box, he knew that Ogle must be serious about something, because he had never known his new boss to own, rent, or come anywhere near real estate that was so civilized.

This particular nice new office building was rooted in a big shopping mall called Pentagon Plaza. It was one of the nicest malls in the D.C. metro area, which was saying something. It was a self-contained metropolis; in addition to the mall it had a parking ramp, movie theaters, a Westin, a Metro station, and office space. From the suite that Ogle had rented, on the eleventh floor, you could look out over the vast geometry of the Pentagon itself, across the Potomac, and into Washington. Or, if you looked in the other direction, you could stare straight down through the spectacular glass roof of the mall, down through its atrium, and into the food court, half-full of tired shoppers, half-full of lunching brass from the Pentagon.

The office had been professionally decorated by someone with a serious thing about sleek. It was sleek from top to bottom and end to end, the kind of place where any man who didn't have his hair slicked back felt like some kind of a shit-kicking redneck. A sleek receptionist sat at the polished-granite cyclorama of the front desk, ensconced beneath the ODR logo, answering phone calls and routing nearly all of them to the shabby department store in Falls Church or the shabby Cadillac dealership in Oakland. Behind her was all windows, chrome and glass - beautiful offices that no one ever used except, apparently, when they had some kind of an important meeting with someone fatuous enough to be impressed by this kind of thing. Which probably included 99 percent of all politicians.

But Ogle hadn't chosen this building because it was new, sleek, or convenient. As he told Aaron repeatedly, he liked it for one reason and one reason only: you got into the place by walking through a mall. The point was all in the symbolism of the thing. Rooted in a goddamn shopping mall. The ultimate symbol of the American middle class. The very people that Ogle made his money and staked his reputation on.

It was also practical at times like this, when Ogle wanted to do what was known as focus group interviews. The idea behind an FGI was that you got a few people together who represented a cross section of America and you interviewed them, maybe showed them a few proposed campaign commercials, and got their reactions.

Finding a cross section of America was pretty easy at Pentagon Plaza. Take the elevator down to the mall level, wait for the doors to open, fling out a lasso, and you could reel in a complete focus group before they even knew what was happening.

People who assembled focus groups for Ogle were very good at wandering through the mall and sizing people up. By watching a person's clothing, hair, jewelry, the way they walked, the things they looked at, the stores they were fascinated by and the stores they ignored, the kind of food they selected at the food court and how they ate it, these observers could peg a person's income bracket to within about ten thousand bucks and make some pretty accurate guesses about what part of the country they were from, whether they came from a big city or a small town, and even what sorts of political views they were likely to hold.

These Ogle employees were officially called Focus Group analysts, but in the corporate parlance they were simply referred to as ropers. The ropers had a parlance all their own, a system of classifying the American population. It was a vast field of expertise and Aaron didn't have more than a foggy idea of how it worked. He didn't need to. They assembled the focus groups. Aaron ran the equipment.

They attached half a dozen PIPER prototypes to the backs of chairs. Each one had a cuff dangling from it. The chairs were arranged in a cozy semicircle in a nice little carpeted room in a nice, proper office in the Pentagon Towers offices.

When they had gotten their little room all hooked up with the prototypes and some video stuff, Shane Schram, the burly, rumpled, prematurely bald, tough-guy psychologist, materialized from some other part of the country and sent a couple of ropers down into the mall. Within a few minutes, sample Americans began to drift out of the elevators.

Schram met them right there in the elevator lobby with a hearty hello and a thank-you for having agreed to participate. The receptionist showed them into the interview room, where they filled out little information cards, drank coffee, and ate doughnuts. Pretty soon, they had a full complement of half a dozen. Schram came into the room, shut the door, thanked them all one more time, and launched into his spiel.

Each of the six subjects was being paid a hundred dollars for this. Ogle was spending a total of six hundred bucks to test a system that cost millions. It was a heck of a deal.

26

"This is our office," Schram said, "and we're paying you our money. But this time is all yours. You haven't heard of us. But we are a public opinion research company with a lot of big clients in politics and corporate America. A lot of people are listening to what we say about American opinion. And the way we learn about that is by talking to people like you. And that's why I say that this time is all yours - because the whole idea is for you to unload on us. To tell us exactly what you're thinking. I want you to be brutally frank and honest about it. You can say anything you want in this room, because I'm from New York City and you can't hurt my feelings. And if you don't bare your true opinions to me, then I can't tell my clients what is going on in the minds of America."

Aaron wasn't in the room. He was in the next room, watching all of this on television. Or hearing it, rather. None of the cameras was pointed at Schram. They had half a dozen cameras in that room, each pointed at one of the subjects. Their faces appeared on half a dozen television monitors, lined up in a nice neat row, and underneath each TV monitor was a computer monitor providing a direct readout from the PIPER prototype attached to their chair.

The PIPER readout consisted of several windows arranged on a computer screen, each window containing an animated graph or diagram. Right now, all of these were dead and inactive. On the monitor speaker, Schram could be heard explaining to the subjects how to put on the cuffs: roll up your sleeve, remove jewelry, et cetera.

One of the ropers, a young woman named Theresa, came into the monitor room. She was carrying a stack of cards, one for each of the subjects. She took a seat behind a table, where she could watch the monitors, and began to arrange the cards in front of her.

"Got a pretty wide spread today, considering," she mumbled. She shuffled through the deck, pulled out a card, and laid it out on the left side of the desk, looking up at the TV monitor on the far left. The monitor was showing a woman in her fifties, frosted blond hair in a complicated set, big jewelry, shiny lipstick, harshly penciled eyebrows. "Classic MHCC, which we get too many of in this mall."

"MHCC?"

"Mall-hopping corporate concubine," Theresa mumbled. "Though to really find them in their pure form you need to go somewhere like Stamford, Connecticut. Here they aren't really corporate, they're more government. Generals' wives."

"Oh."

Theresa put another card on the desk. This one apparently belonged to the person on the second TV monitor, a slightly portly man in his mid-thirties, with a receding hairline and a somewhat nervous affect. "This guy is a debt-hounded wage slave. In its purest form," she said.

"Is that a pretty common one?"

"Oh, yeah. There's millions of debt-hounded wage slaves." Theresa put down a third card. The third TV monitor depicted an older black woman, gray hair in a bun, thick-rimmed glasses, with a wary look on her face. "Bible-slinging porch monkey."

Number four, another black woman, this one in her late thirties, wearing the uniform of a major in the Air Force: "First-generation beltway black."

Number five, a pleasingly plump middle-aged white woman with a big hairdo, who seemed excited by the whole thing, eager to please: "This dame is a frosty-haired coupon snipper right now. Later in life, depending on the economy, she'll probably develop into either a depression-haunted can stacker or a mid-American knickknack queen."

Number six, an older white gentleman with a gaunt face, very alert and skeptical: "Activist tube feeder. These guys are really important. There's millions of these and they vote like crazy."

"How many of these categories do you have?" Aaron said.

"Lots of 'em. Hundreds. But we don't use all of them at once," Theresa said. "We tailor the list to the job. Like, if we're trying to sell athletic shoes, we don't pay attention to the tube feeders, porch monkeys, Winnebago jockeys, or can stackers. On the other hand, if it's an election thing, we can ignore groups who don't vote very much, like trade school metal heads and stone-faced urban homeboys."

"I see."

"Also there's a lot of overlap between groups, which makes the stats a little gloppy sometimes."

"Gloppy stats?"

"Yeah, it's hard to interpret the statistics because things get confused. Like, you've got your 400-pound Tab drinkers. That's an adjective, pertaining to their lifestyle. You could treat 400-pound Tab drinkers as a group unto themselves. Or you could narrow things down by looking at the ones who have no worthwhile job skills. In that case, you'd have a new group called 400-pound Tab-drinking economic roadkill."

"What good would that do you?"

"Say you wanted to market a new diet system that was really el cheapo. You decide to market this thing by aiming for fat jobless individuals. You come up with a marketing strategy where you say that losing weight improves your chances of getting a job. Then you zero in on the 400-pound Tab-Drinking economic roadkill and market it to them as directly as possible."

As the members of the focus group snapped the cuffs into place around their wrists, the computer screens came alive with data. The windows on the monitor screens, which had been blank and inert, sprang to life with colorful, rapidly fluctuating graphics. The cuffs contained sensors that tracked various bodily responses and sent them down the cable to the prototypes; here, the information coming in from the cuff was converted to digital form and transmitted to a receiving station in this room.

Aaron had spent much of the last month writing software to run on a Calyx workstation. This software would scan the incoming stream of data and present it in a graphical form so that Ogle, or anyone else, could glance at the computer screen and get an immediate snapshot of what the subject was feeling.

Several times, Aaron had been on the verge of asking why it was that such quick analysis was needed. He couldn't understand what the big rush was. But before he asked this question, he always remembered what Ogle had told him during their meeting in Oakland: You can't understand everything. Only I, Cyrus Rutherford Ogle, can understand everything.

Shane Schram's voice continued to drone from the speaker. When he had greeted these people as they came from the elevators, he was bouncy and exuberant. But now that they were cuffed to the chairs, he had gone back to speaking in a knowing, New York tone. Everything he said, he said as if he were resigned to it, tired of it, and as if it should be fairly obvious to anyone who wasn't stupid. If you listened to it long enough you began to think that you and Schram were in together on a number of secrets that were hidden from ordinary saps.

"Now, the subject of today's little get-together is the wonderful world of politics."

Up on the TV screen, six faces nodded and winked knowingly. You could get a rise out of just about anyone by referring to politics in this tone of voice.

"Since we can't bring any politicians in here, we're going to show you a bunch of television instead. All I'm asking you to do is to watch this TV program - it'll run to about a quarter of an hour - and then afterwards, we'll sit and talk about it."

In the hallway outside the monitor room, Aaron heard a shuffling noise. Then a loud metallic clank. Then another shuffling noise. Then another loud metallic clank.

"I'm pushing the button that says PLAY," Schram said, jabbing at a button on the VCR, "but it's not playing. Another wonderful product from our sneaky little Jap friends."

Intense movement and color blossomed on all six of the monitors. This crack about the Japanese had produced the strongest emotional response of anything he had said today.

The only problem was how to translate the physical data coming over the wires into information about their emotional state. That was still an inexact science. Seeing the vivid responses on the computer monitors, Aaron glanced up at the television screens, trying to read faces.

To some extent, all of them were smiling at Schram's little joke. But most of the smiles did not look very sincere. They knew he had made a racist remark at the expense of the Japanese, and they knew that they were supposed to find it funny, but none of them was sincerely amused. They were faking it.

Which still didn't tell Aaron why they were really thinking. Were they angered by Schram's display of racism? Did they feel humiliated to be reminded of Japan's economic success?

"Oh, no wonder," Schram said, "there's no videotape in the machine. My secretary must have taken it out. That fucking cunt."

Another burst of color and activity hit the computer monitors. The faces all looked shocked and nervous. But not all of them were responding in the same way. In particular, the women responded completely differently from the men.

Schram left the room, leaving the subjects alone with each other.

Once again, Aaron heard the shuffling and clunking noise out in the hallway. He stuck his head out the door. It was a janitor emptying metal wastebaskets into a rolling dumpster. The janitor was some kind of an astonishing carnival freak; he was hunched over and he dragged one leg as he walked, and something didn't look entirely right about his complexion.

"Jesus," Aaron mumbled under his breath.

The janitor turned to look at him. He must have been some kind of a burn victim. His skin was rough, mottled, striated, like a pizza. He had no neck per se; his chin seemed to be welded directly to his chest by a long sheet of skin that had contracted as it healed.

He turned into the room where the subjects were seated, dragging his dumpster behind him. Aaron ducked back into the monitor room to see all of the computer screens going wild. The six faces reacted almost in unison: they glanced up, their eyes widened, they gaped and stared for an instant, then manners got the better of them and they pretended not to notice. But Aaron could see the emotional impact of this spectacle continuing to simmer away beneath the surface. He could see them sneaking quick glances at the janitor, then looking away, ashamed by their own curiosity.

Within a few seconds, the janitor had finished emptying the wastebaskets and moved on down the hallway. The subjects sat quietly, shooting looks back and forth, daring one another to say something.

Schram came back into the room. "Well, my fucking secretary took an unauthorized break. She obviously thinks she can use the bathroom any time she feels like it."

This brought up lots of interesting stuff on the computer screens, particularly among the women.

"But I rummaged through her desk and I found this videotape in her bottom drawer. It's unlabeled, but I think it's the right one."

Aaron's monitor room had a seventh TV screen showing him the same program that the subjects were watching. Until now it had just been showing static. At this point, the static was replaced by a moving image.

It was a videotape of a woman sucking a man's penis.

"Whoops," Schram said: "How do you stop this thing?"

The image changed. Now it was a woman sandwiched between two men on a large, heart-shaped waterbed, having simultaneous anal and vaginal sex.

"Goddamn new VCR. I'm not familiar with the controls," Schram said. "Hang on a second, I think I heard my secretary coming in, she knows how to work this thing. I'm really sorry about this."

Schram left the room for a minute or so, long enough for the woman on the heart-shaped waterbed to reach an electrifying climax. Both of her lovers withdrew and reached a simultaneous, on-screen orgasm. Then a new sequence began: a man tied to an overhead pipe being whipped by a woman in black leather.

About this time, Schram and his secretary got back into the room.

"Oh, Jesus," the secretary said, "where did you get this? Where did this come from? Turn this thing off."

The pornography stopped rolling and was replaced by static. Aaron could hear the sound of the videotape being ejected from the VCR.

"I found it in your desk," Schram said. "I was trying to find the political spots, which you so brilliantly lost."

"Oh. And that gives you the right to go through my personal things?"

"Hey. What you do on your own time is your own goddamn business. If this kind of stuff turns you on, you're welcome to have it around your home. But when you bring it to work-"

"You bastard!" the secretary screamed. "You bastard! just because you couldn't get it up with me! That's why you did this!" Then she burst into sobs and ran out of the room, screaming in humiliation.

"I couldn't get it up with you because you were such a frigid bitch!" Schram yelled down the hallway.

Aaron had long since stopped paying attention to any of the monitors. He was just staring at the wall, listening to the speaker, as if it were some kind of intense radio play.

"I'm sorry about that, folks," Schram said. "To tell you the truth, I've always harbored a suspicion that she was one of those Anita Hill types. You know, comes on real sexy and then turns around ten years later and says you've been harassing her."

Out in the hallway, Aaron could hear the secretary's high heeled shoes clacking and popping as she returned. He stuck his head out the door.

She was storming back toward the interview room, her face a ghoulish vision of streaked mascara. And she was carrying a gun. Aaron withdrew his head and slammed the door.

"This is what you deserve, you son of a bitch!" she screamed, and then three quick explosions overwhelmed the speaker system.

"I should kill you all, because you're witnesses!" the secretary said. "Don't anybody move from your chairs!"

The only thing Aaron could do now was look at the TV monitors. The subjects' faces had turned into sweating, distorted fright masks. Their eyes were wide open, darting back and forth, they were blinking rapidly, their jaws trembled, several held their hands over their faces, trying not to scream.

One of them - the debt-hounded wage slave - suddenly held both of his hands straight out in front of his face and turned his head to one side, bracing for the impact of a bullet.

A metallic click sounded from the monitor speaker.

"Shit!" the secretary said. "I'm out of bullets."

This revelation triggered a burst of emotions on the computer screens that was more vivid than anything seen yet.

"Freeze!" another voice shouted, a deep male voice. "Nobody move! Put the weapon on the floor, ma'am."

Aaron couldn't see what was happening, but he could see the relieved expressions on the subjects' faces, he could see the emotional response on the computer monitors. On the speaker, he heard the litany of the Cop Show Bust: "Lie down on your stomach and lace your fingers together behind your head. Don't move and nobody will get hurt."

It sounded safe. Aaron decided to go out and see what was going on. He walked down the hall to the interview room.

The secretary was lying on the floor. A large black cop was in the process of handcuffing her. Schram was half-sitting, half-lying on the floor, crumpled against the far wall of the room, covered with blood. Huge bursts of his blood had splattered on to the wall from the impact of the bullets and what looked like a gallon of the stuff had run out of his wounds and puddled on the floor all around him.

"My God," Aaron said. "I'll call an ambulance."

"I already done it," the cop said. "Go to the elevators and wait for 'em."

Aaron did exactly that. And he didn't have to wait for very long; the crew arrived with astonishing speed, four men rolling in a big gurney and carrying their equipment in bags and boxes. They didn't do much work on Schram, just lifted him directly on to the gurney and wheeled him out of the room. And down the hallway. Down the hallway to the bathroom.

The bathroom? Aaron followed them in there.

Schram had already climbed to his feet and was in the process of stripping out of his bloodstained clothes. Underneath his shirt, several small packets had been taped on to his body, electrical wires running into them. All of these things were soaked with blood and appeared to have been blown open from within. As Aaron watched, Schram ripped them off his body, exposing clean, unblemished flesh, and tossed them into the garbage.

"Squibs," he said. "Do you think they bought it?"

Aaron was still just standing there, his jaw flopped open like the hood of an abandoned car.

"You bought it, obviously," Schram said, "so they probably did. Why don't you get back in there and I'll meet you in a couple of minutes, after I get cleaned up." Schram stripped off the last of his clothes and walked, buck naked, into a shower stall, leaving a trail of bloody footprints on the polished white marble floor.

The secretary had been hauled off in chains. Several more "cops" had arrived and begun to interrogate the six witnesses. One of the cops was blustery and bullying and seemed to be treating the six as though they were all potential suspects in the crime. One of them was soothing and sympathetic. As they took turns talking to the six subjects, the readouts on the screen fluctuated back and forth from one extreme to the other.

Within a minute or two, Schram had joined Aaron in the monitor room, wearing a fresh set of clothes. "Can't you get in trouble for doing this?" Aaron said. He knew it was sappy even as he was saying it. But he couldn't help himself.

"For doing what?" Schram asked, sounding perfectly innocent.

"For - for what you just did."

"What did I just do?" Schram said.

"You - I don't know, you scared those people."

"So?"

"Well, isn't that a little extreme?"

"Life is extreme," Schram said.

"But isn't it illegal to do that, or something?"

"They all signed releases. Why do you think we're paying them money?"

"Did the releases give you permission to do that!"

"The releases say that these people are willingly taking part in a psychological experiment," Schram said, "which is certainly the case."

"But aren't you going to tell them it was fake?"

"Of course I will. Of course I'll tell them," Schram said. "How else are we going to get them pissed off?"

"You want them to be pissed off?"

"Before they get out of that room," Schram said, "I want to run them through every emotion in the book."

"Oh. Well, which emotion are they being put through now?"

"Boredom. Which is going to take a while. And in the mean­time, I want to go back over our results so far."

Everything that had happened to this point - the six feeds from the six video cameras, the audio track coming over the speaker, and the streams of data coming from the PIPER prototypes - had all been recorded by the computers. By entering some commands into the Calyx system that controlled the whole thing, they were able to go back and replay portions of the experiment, seeing everything, on the dozen or so screens, just as Aaron had seen it the first time it had happened.

The door opened and the hunchbacked janitor dragged himself into the room. He fixed his one good eye on Schram, slouched over to him, and gave him a high five.

"Oscar-winning performance," the janitor said. "You get best supporting actor, Cy," Schram said. "Nah, it's all special effects," Ogle said, reaching up to grab the curtain of tortured flesh that ran from his jawbone down to his chest. He pulled on it, and most of it peeled away in a single piece, leaving a few strips and patches of burnt-looking skin adhering to his face and neck. With a few minutes of additional peeling and scrubbing, Ogle managed to get loose from most of the makeup, though a few fragments of it still stuck to him here and there, like bits of tissue paper left over from a bad shave, and the part of his face that hadn't been covered still had colored greasepaint on it. Ogle didn't care; he was too busy staring at the monitors.

He loved it. His eyes were virtually popping out of his head. His mouth was wide open and frozen in an expression of boyish glee, like a farm boy getting his first look at Disney World. His eyes darted back and forth from one screen to the next; he couldn't decide what to look at.

"Days. Weeks," Ogle said. "I'm gonna be looking at this thing for weeks."

"Check out the look on that can stacker's face when you dragged your sorry ass into the room," Schram said.

"She's not a can stacker," Aaron said, "she's a coupon snipper."

They ran through the whole thing a couple of times. The computer allowed them to run it like a videotape, with fast-forward, rewind, freeze-frame, the whole bit. As they went through it, Schram jotted down notes on a yellow legal pad. Finally they shunted the screens back over to a real-time display of what was happening, right now, in the interview room.

Nothing was happening. The six faces were a picture of terminal boredom. The good cop and the bad cop had gone away and been replaced by a droning, monotonous voice that was going on and on in some kind of pseudolegal jargon.

"That's an actor claiming to be a lawyer for Ogle Data Research," Ogle explained. "He's been lecturing them for half an hour while we dicked around with all this stuff."

"Let's see what self-righteous indignation looks like," Schram said, rising to his feet and heading for the interview room.

"Ten-four on that," Ogle said.

Schram walked into the interview room a moment later and the monitors all went ballistic. Ogle howled like a dog.

"All the same," he said, "they all react the same. The hunchback, the shooting, the pornography, and they all reacted differently. But when they're pissed off, they all look alike. And that's why self-righteousness is the most powerful force in politics."

27

The first thing he learned how to move was his right thumb. It wasn't a fluke, either. It was something that William Cozzano worked on constantly from the first moment that he came awake after the implantation.

Within a day, he was able to make the thumb jerk spasmodically from time to time. By the time they loaded him on the plane and flew him back to Tuscola, two days after the implantation, he was able to jerk it whenever he wanted to.

Then he learned how to move it both ways, straightening the thumb and then curling it into the palm of his hand. Once he got that down, he repeated it several thousand times, sixteen hours a day, until they gave him sedatives to make him sleep. Eight hours later he would wake up and begin exercising his thumb again.

For the first few days, neither Mary Catherine nor anyone else could figure out why he was concentrating on the thumb. They had assumed that he would want to work on his speech skills. And he did, from time to time; within a week after the operation, it was possible to watch him playing with muscle in his face. The underside of his jaw throbbed in and out as he moved his tongue around inside his mouth, and his lips began to move, on both sides, jerkily at first and then smoothly. Within five days he had learned to pucker up so that he could give Mary Catherine a kiss when she bent down to offer her cheek.

But the whole time he was doing these things, his thumb was active. It became a subject of concern among Cozzano's therapy team - the half-dozen physical therapists, neurologists, and computer people who had moved into some of the unused bedrooms in the Tuscola house to monitor the Governor's recovery. They had meetings about that thumb. Worried about whether the movement was voluntary or involuntary, discussed the idea of taping it down so it wouldn't get worn out and arthritic over time.

It all became clear the first time they put a remote control into his hand. By that time, his fingers had developed enough co­ordination to wrap around the underside of the remote and hold it in place, giving that thumb, now highly coordinated, the freedom to roam around on its top surface, punching buttons. Changing channels. Moving the volume up and down. Activating the VCR to tape certain programs, then playing them back later.

They decided to give him a test. They arranged a dinner party on a Thursday evening at seven o'clock, knowing that it would interfere with Cozzano's favorite TV show, a satirical cartoon. He passed that test with flying colors; without any hints or prompting from the therapy team, he used his thumb to program his VCR.

"He still knows how to do it," said the head computer person, Peter (Zeldo) Zeldovich. He was awed. "I mean, I wrote half of the Calyx operating system. But I can't program a VCR."

"His memory seems pretty good," Mary Catherine said. She had driven down from Chicago to attend the dinner, then snuck up to the hallway outside the master bedroom to see Dad rewind the videotape and play back his favourite program.

The other bedrooms had been turned into a high-tech wonder­land. Zeldo filled Mary Catherine's old bedroom with computers and James's with communications gear. Mom's sewing room was full of medical stuff. The two guest bedrooms were set up with bunk beds and mattresses on the floor so that the nurses and therapists could alternate between sleeping and working without leaving the house.

Everything that Dad did now - every tiny motion of his thumb, every twitch of his lips - had huge informational ramifications that Zeldo could plot and graph on his computer screens. Thousands of connections had now grown into place between Dad's neurons and the biochip, and hundreds of new ones were still being made every day. All of the impulses passing from his brain outward into his body and back passed through these connections, and could be monitored by the biochip. Even when Dad was sleeping, it amounted to an overwhelming flow of information, like all the telephone calls being made into or out of Manhattan at a given time.

There was no way to understand all of it. No way to keep track. The best that Zeldo could do was keep a running tab on what was happening, building up a statistical database, maybe get some sense of which connections were being used for the thumb and which for the left eyebrow. Still, it was fascinating to watch.

That all of these things worked was no news. The chip had worked in the baboons and it had worked in Mohinder Singh, after all. The real question on their minds was: how much damage had the strokes done to other parts of Cozzano's mind, for example, memory, personality, cognitive skills?

The fact that he still wanted to watch the same TV show, still thought it was funny, and still knew how to program his VCR answered several questions. It was good news on all fronts.

But mostly Cozzano watched the news and public affairs pro­grams about the presidential campaign. They would pin the latest newspapers and magazines up on a reading stand in front of his face and he would pore over them, his eyes flicking back and forth between the coverage on the televisions and the printed page.

Only then - after he had got control of the TV channels and had caught up on the newspapers - only then did he start working on speech.

They set an ambitious schedule for him, worrying that they might stress him out and overwork him, and he left that schedule in the dust. First thing in the morning, the physical therapists came in, at first helping him move his limbs, later, when he got the hang of that, running him through exercises. Then the speech therapist came in and got him to put his tongue and lips in certain positions, got him to make certain sounds, and then to string those sounds together into syllables and words. Following an afternoon nap, the physical therapists would come back in and work on the parts of his body that they had missed in the morning. During the evenings he could relax, watch TV, read.

He exercised his speech during physical therapy and he exercised his body during speech therapy. He also exercised both of them while he was pretending to take his afternoon nap, and then he exercised them all evening long when he was supposed to be taking it easy. He even woke up in the middle of the night and exercised.

Getting up out of the wheelchair was an ambitious goal that he wouldn't attempt for a few weeks. In the meantime there were a few things he couldn't do for himself, such as going to the toilet, taking baths, carrying in wood for the fireplace, and swapping tapes in and out of the VCR. Nurses, aides, and family members had to do these things for him.

Almost two weeks after the implant, Mary Catherine came down for another visit. She had been doing so much driving that they had gone to the trouble of leasing a car, a brand-new Acura luxury sedan, so that she could make the trip in comfort and safety. The evening she arrived, she had a conversation with Dad.

"Vee... Cee...rrr," he said.

"VCR. You want me to do something with the VCR?"

"Yes."

"Okay. What do you want me to do?"

Dad aimed the remote shakily toward the TV cabinet and hit the EJECT button. The VCR spat out a tape.

"You want me to take this out?"

"Yes."

"You want me to put a different tape in?"

"Yes."

The TV cabinet had a shelf along the top with a few dozen videotapes in it, mostly old family tapes or favourite movies. Mary Catherine began running her finger along the line of tapes.

"New!" Dad blurted.

"You want a new tape?"

"Blank."

"You want a blank tape."

"Yes."

Mary Catherine rummaged around in the cabinet until she found a six-pack of fresh blank videocassettes. Dad always bought them half a dozen at a time at Wal-Mart. He always bought everything in vast, bulk quantities, dirt cheap, in huge drafty warehouse like stores out in the middle of the prairie.

She unwrapped one and stuck it into the machine. "Okay, what should I do with this old one?" she asked, wiggling the tape she had just removed"

"Label."

The fresh videotape had come shipped with a number of blank labels. She peeled a couple of them back and stuck them on to the black shell of the cassette. Then she dug a small felt-tipped marker out of her purse. "What do you want to call this?"

Dad rolled his eyes as if to indicate that this was not important, he would remember what it was. Mary Catherine grinned and looked him in the eye, pen poised over the tape, challenging him.

He looked her right back in the eye. "Eee... lack... sun."

"Election."

"One," Dad said. The fingers of his hand trembled and jerked uncertainly. Finally the index finger extended, while the other fingers clenched into a loose, jittering fist.

"Election One," Mary Catherine repeated, writing it on to the top and side of the tape. "Does this imply that it's the first in a series?"

Dad rolled his eyes again.

Later, after he had gone to sleep, Mary Catherine curled up on the living room sofa with a bag of microwave popcorn, rewound "Election One," and watched it.

It was outtakes from election-related news coverage from the past week or week and a half, ever since Dad's thumb had gotten nimble enough to control the machine. Most of it had to do with the peculiar, stereotyped behavior patterns of men competing in state primary elections. It made good training for a neurologist. Hours and hours of men walking around under bright lights, moving with the spasmodic gait of candidates. A candidate walked on two legs like a normal man, but every time he sensed that he was in a position that would make a good photograph, he would stop and freeze for a moment as if suffering a petit mal seizure, and turn toward the nearest battery of cameras. No candidate could climb on board a vehicle or enter a building without freezing for a moment and giving the thumbs-up. Handshakes all lasted for hours, and the candidate never looked at the person whose hand he was shaking; he looked toward the audience.

Super Tuesday, Illinois, and New York were history. California wouldn't happen for weeks. By this point in the campaign, the nominations were usually settled. But there was nothing settled about them this year. Both parties were running several candidates. The flakes, the paupers and the weaklings had long since been weeded out. The remaining strong contenders had been beating one another mercilessly. By the time the real campaign began on Labor Day, neither of the two surviving candidates would have any reputation left.

Maybe the GOP would try to draft Cozzano. But she had to ask herself - Dad had to be asking himself - what was the point of parties anyway? All they did was get in the way. Ogle was right.

The film crew showed up in Tuscola a few days later. It consisted of a producer, a cameraman, and an audio person who happened to be female. They rented a couple of rooms at the Super 8 Motel on the edge of town, out near I-57, a short drive from the Cozzano residence.

The producer was named Myron Morris. He came with the personal recommendation of Cyrus Rutherford Ogle, who continued to phone Mary Catherine at work from time to time, just keeping in touch. She had a series of conversations with him: Ogle on a plane or in a car or hotel room somewhere, and Mary Catherine standing in the hallway at the hospital, usually in the neurology ward, where the comings and goings of various para­lyzed, epileptic, senile, psychotic, or demented patients provided a useful reality check.

Ogle had first brought up the idea of a film crew just a few days after the implant. He had gone about this in typically diplomatic fashion, in a late round of the conversation, after greetings, small talk, chitchat about politics, and a little bit of gentle probing into the Governor's condition.

"This is like your baby learning how to walk: it's only going to happen once," he pointed out. "And consequently, you're going to want it on film. It might seem like a weird idea now, but believe me, sooner or later, maybe ten years down the road, you and the Governor are going to wish that you could go back and watch him saying his first words and taking his first steps."

"We have a camcorder stashed back in the garage," Mary Catherine said. "I'll get it out."

"That's an excellent idea," Ogle said encouragingly, "and make sure that when you're finished, you break off the little plastic tab on the videocassette so you can't record over it by accident."

"I'll do that," Mary Catherine said, trying to hide the smile in her voice.

A week later they spoke again. It was the same routine: small talk, chitchat, and all the rest.

"Did you dig up that long-lost camcorder?" Ogle said knowingly.

"Yes," Mary Catherine said.

"But it doesn't work."

"How'd you know?"

"Old ones never do," Ogle said. "The first time you put them away in the garage, you lose half the pieces."

"There's a little black box that is supposed to charge up the battery," Mary Catherine said. "I can't find it anywhere. Dad knows where it is, but he can't tell me at this point in his recovery. So maybe I'll go buy a new one."

"Don't do that," Ogle said. "There's too many camcorders floating around the world not being used for you to go spend money on a new one."

"I sense that you have a scheme on your mind."

"As usual you are right. I know some people. People who are very good working with film and videotape. Who would be glad to come in to Tuscola and spend some time videotaping your father's recovery."

"Is that right."

"Yes, it is. We could send out a three-person crew as soon as you give the okay."

Mary Catherine laughed. "Well, I must say that is an exceedingly generous offer. To think that three people who presumably have jobs and families could come all the way out to Tuscola and donate their time and expertise to making some home movies for the Cozzano family."

"Isn't it a remarkable thing?" Ogle said.

"You realize that this recovery process is going to stretch out over a period of several weeks. Possibly months."

"Yes, I know that."

"Don't these people have anything better to do during this part of their lives?"

"Nope. They sure don't," Ogle said.

Mary Catherine let a long pause go by. "What's going on here?"

"I'll tell you," Ogle said. "Your dad's gonna get better. I know he is."

"I appreciate that confidence."

"At that point he'll be a healthy, strong, middle-aged man with a great deal of popularity, in Illinois and in the rest of the country. And based on his past behavior I have this feeling he's not ready to retire yet."

"I couldn't say."

"And I don't know what he'll choose to do with the remaining, best years of his life. But would it be fair to say it's not out of the question that he might continue with his current career in politics?"

"Who knows?"

"Well, if he does continue in politics - even if he just wants to run for mayor of Tuscola - I would very much like to serve as his media consultant."

"I'm looking at my watch," Mary Catherine said, "and noting the time. I think you just set a new record."

"For what?"

"For beating around the bush. You've been talking to me for a month and this is the first time you've come out and said that."

"Well, I hate to be direct," Ogle said. "It's just the way I am."

"Please continue." She sighed.

"If he were to make that choice, and if he were to hire me, I would want to make campaign ads explaining to the voters who William A. Cozzano is and why he would be a good man to vote for. And as a man who understands the media, I cannot think of anything that would tell voters more about the character of your father than some footage - discreet, dignified - showing his slow and difficult recovery from the terrible, terrible tragedy that overcame him. And, because it is my job to think ahead, it has occurred to me that, if all these things were to come to pass, I would not to able to make such advertisements unless I had footage of the real thing."

"So you're willing to spend, what, tens of thousands of bucks to put a film crew in Tuscola full-time, just on the off chance that he will recover fully, choose to continue a career in politics, and choose to hire you as his media consultant."

"What can I say," Ogle said. "I'm an optimist."

Ogle was up to something. That was no surprise. Mary Catherine wasn't a professional politician but she wasn't a complete moron either and she had known from the beginning that Ogle must have some kind of agenda.

Her first reaction was not to trust him, not to get herself entangled in anything. To play it safe, in other words. She had been noncommital when Ogle had suggested that Dad might want to continue his career in politics. The fact was, of course, that Dad very much did want to continue it. She had something of a duty to help him. Not to close off any options that he might want kept open. And if she failed to accept Ogle's suggestion, she'd be blowing an opportunity. Being the overprotective daughter.

Besides, she still wasn't committing the Cozzanos to anything. There couldn't be any harm in letting some people hang around and film Dad. Later, when he had recovered more fully, then he'd be able to make the command decision. If he didn't like Ogle, those people would be out on their asses.

Mel wasn't crazy about this. But he had changed his tactics. He no longer challenged Mary Catherine on every little point, just grumbled and simmered a lot in the background. Just to give him something to do, she had him deal with Ogle's lawyers. They drew up an agreement that gave the Cozzanos absolute, permanent, unequivocal control over any films, videotapes, audiotapes, or other media that Ogle's people created on Cozzano property. Mel was good, Mel knew how to make the agreement airtight, and by the time Myron Morris and his two assistants pulled into Tuscola in their four-wheel-drive Suburban, Mel was as satisfied as he could ever be that this thing was above board. There was no way they could pull anything sneaky.

Mary Catherine was astonished the first time she saw the crew in action. Myron Morris himself wasn't there; he had hung around quite a bit for the first day or two, then excused himself. That left the cameraman and the sound woman. The sound woman was carrying some heavy-duty gear: a big reel-to-reel machine slung over a shoulder strap, with an assortment of microphones. But the cameraman was packing a cheap piece of junk: a home-style VHS camcorder not much different from the one that was rusting away in the Cozzanos' garage.

"Why are you using a home camcorder?" Mary Catherine asked him, when he wasn't actively filming Dad.

He shrugged. "That's what Myron said to use. I don't get it either."

"Where's Myron?"

"Scouting."

"Scouting?"

"Locations. He's looking around the area."

"Why? Is he planning on producing a movie in Tuscola?"

The cameraman shrugged. "I'm just repeating his words."

She found him outside of town, at the old Cozzano farm. His giant Suburban was parked along the shoulder of the country road, looking as if it might roll over into the ditch. Morris had jumped a fence into a cornfield and was walking down one of the freshly plowed rows, his shoes sinking into the soft black earth. Every few paces he would stop walking and turn toward the farmhouse, which had been rebuilt by Dad and his cousins after the tornado destroyed it in the early fifties. He would lift a short, stubby black telescope to one eye and peer through it for a few seconds. Two or three of these devices were hung on ropes around his neck, clacking into one another as he walked.

Mary Catherine parked behind his Suburban, jumped the ditch, and vaulted the fence. Fence-vaulting was something she had known how to do, expertly, since an early age; in the extended Cozzano family, kids who couldn't vault fences got left behind and never had any fun. In her fancy grownup clothes it was slightly more complicated, but nowadays she had the advantage of height. Half a mile away she could see her second cousin Tim out plowing the field on one of the old tractors.

Myron Morris noticed her approaching. He stopped, waved, and stood there for a few moments, hands in pockets, watching her approach. Then he picked up one of the short stubby telescopes and used it to peer at her. He dropped that one and looked at her through another. Then another.

"What are those things?" she asked as she got closer.

"They simulate what I would see looking through the view-finder of a camera with a particular lens on it. It's just a visual device that makes it easier to frame one's shots, figure out where to put the camera."

"I've been following you around town" she said. "People said they've seen you out at the park, the high-school playing field, the old train station."

"I don't get out to Tuscola very often," he said. "So as long as I'm here I thought I'd get to know the place."

"Don't you think you're getting ahead of the game? Dad's staying at home."

"I won't bullshit you," he said. "Cy Ogle wants to work for your dad. This is important stuff to him. If anything happens, we'll need to know where are the best places to shoot. And that's what I'm finding out. Is that okay?"

Mary Catherine nodded at the little telescopes. "Do any of those things work with a video camcorder?"

"Nah. These are all for professional film cameras."

"I'm confused," she said. "In some ways, you guys are taking this thing way too seriously. In other ways, you're goofing off."

"You want to know why we're using that Kmart special to videotape the Governor."

"Yeah."

"The whole point here is that these things are supposed to be home movies. If the Governor chooses not to use our services, then you end up with home movies in a format you can use. But if he does hire us, we can make them into ads."

"Ads that look like shitty home movies."

"A-ha!" Myron Morris said, holding up one finger. "You were expecting something a little slicker."

"If there's one adjective that's most commonly used in connection with Cy Ogle, it is slick" Mary Catherine said.

"Which is why we want to go with the opposite of slick."

"I don't follow."

"Imagine it. A television ad showing big moments in the life of William Anthony Cozzano. We see him horsing around this very farm as a child. Scoring a touchdown in the Rose Bowl. We see him in Vietnam. We see him playing for the Bears. Raising his kids. All of this is going to be trashy, grainy, antiquated film stock. Home-movie stuff. And then we see his recovery from the stroke - some private moments at home - and all of a sudden it looks slick. It's shot on 35-millimeter film stock, the lighting is perfect, he's wearing makeup, all of a sudden it looks like goddamn Lawrence of Arabia. You think people aren't going to notice that?"

Mary Catherine didn't have an answer for that one.

"Americans may be undereducated, lazy, and disorganized, but they do one thing better than any people on the face of the earth, and that is watch television. The average eight-year-old American has absorbed more about media technology than a goddamn film student in most other countries. You can tell lies to them and they'll never know. But if you try to lie to them with the camera, they'll crucify you. Which is why, when we shoot home movies of your father, we use exactly the same machine that Joe Sixpack uses when he sends a tape of his dancing Dalmation to America's Funniest Home Videos. And to tell you the truth, we may actually have to go through and process that videotape and make it look worse than it does now."

"Are you sure about this?"

"Reagan did it in '80. I believe he made out okay." "But everyone will know that Ogle's working for Dad." Myron shook his head dismissively. "That's a verbal thing. Nobody gives a shit about that, as long as the ads don't look slick. Believe me, as long as we stick with half-inch videotape, and as long as we avoid releasing any images of your Dad standing with one arm around Cy Ogle, nobody who matters will think that he's ever been near a slick media man."

28

As Mary Catherine trudged back across the field to where she had parked her car behind Morris's Suburban, a third car cruised up the road and pulled on to the shoulder behind hers. It was Mel's Mercedes.

Mel set the hand brake, climbed out, waved to her, and then ambled around on the shoulder for a minute or two, squinting off into the distance, taking in the vista. Views in this part of Illinois were not exciting, but they were vast, and a person like Mel, who spent much time pent up in a city, could come out here and stare at the horizon in the same way that a vacationer in New York or L.A. might go to the ocean and gaze off into emptiness.

Mel had given up cigarettes by the trick of switching to cigars, which were so noxious that, like nuclear weapons, they could not be used except in remote, desolate environments. He did not smoke them in his Mercedes for fear of imparting an eternal reek to the leather and the carpets. Now that he was out on the road, he fished the extinct butt of a fat stogie from the pocket of his trench coat and stoked it into life with a wooden safety match. Bubbles of silver smoke blew out from the corners of his mouth, elongated in the wind, and whipped off across the prairie, picking up almost palpable momentum as they headed for the Indiana border.

After a minute or so, Mel's gaze settled on the farmhouse, which he had helped to rebuild. The concept of a Jew learning to use a claw hammer had been considered revolutionary by both the Meyers and the Cozzanos, and had met with some resistance from both groups. But the young Mel enjoyed his trips out of town and had insisted on riding the train down at least once a week during the summers to pound nails. Three volumes of the library of Cozzano family photo albums were devoted to the reconstruction of the house, and Mel showed up in a number of pictures, pale, skinny, and bent as a peeled banana, kneeling on the bare plywood of the new roof among burly, copper-hued Cozzanos, nailing down the shingles one strip at a time.

Since then, Mel had always felt a proprietary interest in the Cozzano farmhouse. He had only a distant relationship with the Cozzanos who lived there now, but he liked to drive out from time to time and look at it, as he was doing now. Mary Catherine did not know whether he did this from pure nostalgia or from curiosity about the durability of his handiwork or both. She did know that photographs of the completed farmhouse had circulated widely among the Meyer family, as far away as Israel, as evidence of the wonders that a Meyer could achieve if he was not afraid to brave unknown fields of endeavour.

"When I was pounding in all those damn nails, whack whack whack, day after day, I had this terrible fear that I didn't really know what I was doing," Mel said, as Mary Catherine was vaulting the fence again. "I would have nightmares that all of the nails I had pounded in to that house would suddenly pop loose and all of Willy's nails would hold fast, and everyone would blame me for the house falling down."

"Well, it's still standing," Mary Catherine said.

"That it is," Mel said with satisfaction and finality, as if his sole purpose in driving down from Chicago had been to make sure that the house was still there.

"Have you seen Dad?"

"Yeah, Willy and I saw each other," Mel said. "So the social aspect of today's visit has been consummated."

"Oh. You don't want to socialize with me?"

Mel looked around them. A farm truck blasted down the road, kicking up dust and rocks with its windblast, inflating Mel's trench coat and Mary Catherine's hair for a moment. The red coal on the end of Mel's cigar flared bright orange and caught his eye. He stared into it as though mesmerized. "This is no place," he said, "to socialize with a lady."

She smiled. Mel was old enough, and good enough, to talk this way without seeming stilted or weird. "You didn't come down to socialize with me anyway."

Mel took one last draw on his cigar and then examined it regretfully. He pinched it carefully between the ball of his thumb and the nail of his arched forefinger, straightened his arm, aimed it into the ditch, and snapped the butt into a swampy patch. It died with a quick sizzling burst. Mel stood still for a moment, staring at it, and then expelled the last of the smoke from his mouth.

"Get in," he said. "Let's go get some coffee at the Dixie Truckers' Home."

She grinned. The Dixie Truckers' Home was right out on I-57. Mel had driven by it a million times but never been there; for him it was an object of morbid, sick fascination. Mary Catherine opened the passenger door and climbed in. Normally Mel would have gone all the way around the car and opened the door for her, but his mind was elsewhere today. As he had implied, this was business, not a social visit, and he wasn't thinking about the niceties.

The Mercedes was perfect for two, crowded for anyone else. It was ideal for Mel, who was unmarried and childless and presumed by many to be gay. He started up the engine and pulled out on to the road and gave the car a tremendous long burst of acceleration that took it all the way up past a hundred.

Mary Catherine's heart melted. Mel had always enjoyed thrilling her and James with the power of his fancy European cars, ever since they had been children. She knew that when he put the pedal down and squealed the tires on this country road, he was evoking a memory, for his own benefit as much as for Mary Catherine's.

"You know that the relationship between our families has been strong and will continue to be," Mel said, "even though, over time, it has gone through a lot of different shapes."

"What's going on?" she said.

Mel slowed the car down and looked sideways at Mary Catherine for a moment. He seemed a little surprised by her impatience.

"Just take